Theresa Vince was less than a month away from an early retirement.
It was late spring, 1996, and Vince was leaving her job as a human resources training administrator at Sears in Chatham, Ont., after years of escalating sexual harassment. What had started as her boss giving unwanted compliments and gifts had escalated to phoning her dozens of times a day, moving her desk close to his doorway, removing his clothes to show her his tan, making unreasonable demands to keep her in the office late.
Retirement, for 56-year-old Vince, was the only way left to escape it.
But on June 2, Vince’s boss Russell Davis walked into the Sears store carrying a Taco Bell bag. Inside it were two guns and 100 rounds of ammunition. He shot her. And then he shot himself.
Her daughter, Jacquie Carr, was 31 at the time. The incident that left her family devastated also propelled them to spend the next 15 years advocating for changes to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
Carr tells the story of her mother, the changes they’ve achieved since her death, and what still needs to be done.
“My mom had laid a complaint of sexual harassment 18 months before, to the regional human resources supervisor. She had been having trouble with some of his behaviours toward her for almost the entire time he was there in the store, so it had been going on quite a while.
She was given a few choices. My mom could either go and speak to him and let him know that what he was doing wasn’t okay and she would like him to stop, or she could write him a letter, or the [supervisor] could speak to him. She ended up talking to him herself. His behaviour just became worse. He didn’t stop.
Her way of managing it was very similar to what we know statistically about how people in her situation manage that kind of behaviour. She had mentioned a little bit to my older sister, but not very much at all. The person that she talked to the most was her sister. They were trying to handle it with coping strategies like staying away from him, trying to ignore it — things that we now know don’t work.
For the whole family, a big part of being able to cope after her death was to have outside support (from local sexual assault centres and a women’s shelter). What happened to her was part of gender-based violence and it’s systemic, not just in our society but also in our workplaces. Understanding some of those key components and having support to try to promote education and positive changes in the province, that definitely was a part of being able to move on and move forward.
There have been some changes. Very significantly, we’ve seen changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (it was amended in 2010 to include violence and harassment as potential hazards). The thing that I think still needs to be in place is an independent service that’s available for people who are experiencing these problems.
Internal processes can be very successful and effective ways of managing these kinds of problems, but not always. Sometimes, having policies is great, but the way they’re interpreted or implemented can be very different based on the individuals who are in charge of implementing them and how they interpret those policies. If you’re in a workplace where they either don’t have those policies or it’s not dealt with properly, it can be very important for somebody to have an outside source of support.
We give so much lip-service to equality in the workplace and equality in society and yet these things just happen so commonly. There is still so little support and so much vulnerability. We’re getting better about talking about workplace sexual harassment but there are a lot of people—adults who are in the workplace now—who wouldn’t remember Mom’s story.
Even garden variety sexual harassment can have some very serious consequences. The physical things that were happening to Mom … you wouldn’t line that up necessarily and think, ‘okay, there’s a risk to somebody’s life there.’ It’s not always proportional; it doesn’t always work that way.
But it’s potentially very dangerous. Workplace sexual harassment can have very serious consequences, including death.
— As told to Jessica McDiarmid. This interview has been edited and condensed.
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.