A non-binary firefighter in Ottawa was the subject of a hate-motivated assault

Local advocates say the incident signals deeper issues in the culture of the Ottawa Fire Services

Two Ottawa Fire Services employees have been charged in the wake of an allegedly hate-motivated attack on a non-binary colleague. While fire services officials are calling it an isolated incident, LGBTQ2S+ advocates point towards systemic issues. 

On Monday, the Ottawa police announced that they have accused an Ottawa Fire Services (OFS) employee of hate-motivated assault, aggravated assault, forcible confinement and harassment of their colleague, according to CBC. A second employee, a captain, was charged with criminal negligence in relation to the alleged assault. The victim, who was taken to the hospital after the incident, reported it to police on September 20. 

Sources with knowledge of the complaint and the investigation told CBC that the victim, a non-binary, rookie firefighter, was subject to both gender-based slurs and physical violence. They told police that their assailant questioned the validity of their gender identity while choking them, grabbing their throat from behind and lifting them off the ground. 

According to CBC, Fire Chief Paul Hutt sent an email, before the police announcement on Monday, asking fire department staff to refrain from “making assumptions.” “While incidents like this are isolated, the effects can be difficult to process and are far-reaching,” Hutt wrote. “We do not tolerate any form of inappropriate behaviours in the workplace.”

The accused are to appear in court on December 16, according to Capital Current. Ottawa police have said that crimes motivated by hate or bias can lead to harsher punishments. 

Doug McLennan, president of the Ottawa Professional Fire Fighters Association, echoed Hutt’s sentiments by labeling this an “isolated incident,” in comments to Capital Current. “We don’t typically have things like this that happen in the fire services,” he said. 

While fire services officials were quick to deny any underlying issues in the OFS, LGBTQ2S+ advocates disagree. Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, told Canada.com that this incident signals a need for OFS to diversify its workforce and ensure new employees feel safe. “The department’s leadership needs to ensure that its most vulnerable people are protected,” she said.

“A lot of trans people get pushed out of the traditional job market because of the level of transphobia they have to deal with, and it’s really scary that people working in publicly funded, frontline services like the fire department face this, too.”

Abigail Curlew, a trans-feminist and doctoral researcher at Carleton University, expressed similar concerns about the safety of the OFS environment for non-binary employees.

“It’s incredibly unacceptable,” she told Capital Current. “When there’s the duress of having to face hate-motivated violence, a lot of fear and anxiety come from it.”

 

The OFS is not the only Ontario institution that’s reckoning with anti-trans violence and rhetoric. This assault comes on the heels of school board elections that saw an unprecedented wave of anti-trans candidates running for school board trustee. There were upwards of 20 anti-trans candidates, according to CBC, including two candidates running in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. 

Lyra Evans, Canada’s first openly trans trustee, was ultimately re-elected as the trustee for the Ottawa-Carleton District. When asked about the OFS incident by Capital Current, Evans said she was disappointed, but not surprised. 

“There are still spaces that operate much like a boys’ club,” she said, “where promotion of equity, where recognition that people might be coming to it from a different place, still struggle to get a foothold.”

The OFS announced in 2020 its intention to revamp its workforce, with a specific focus on attracting new recruits who are LGBTQ+, women and more racially diverse, according to Capital Current. Curlew said this type of strategy, in addition to sensitivity training, can make workplaces safer. However, she added, it’s too simplistic to think that those initiatives alone will change the culture.

“It’s a difficult and complicated situation where you have to undo a lifetime of socialization,” Curlew told Capital Current. “That kind of stuff is a hard, hard turnaround.”

Maddy Mahoney (she/her) is a journalist and writer based in Toronto. You can find her work at CBC Arts, Maisonneuve, Toronto Life, Loose Lips Magazine and others. She lives in Toronto and speaks English.

Read More About:
Power, Identity, News, Trans, Hate Watch, Transphobia

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