Fighting Back, How Bonnie Robichaud Made History

Bonnie Robichaud’s struggle for justice began over forty years ago. At that time sexual harassment in the workplace was not uncommon and was actually considered to be part of normal working conditions, certainly not grounds for serious complaint.

Even if employers did not officially condone this behavior they felt in no way responsible for preventing it. Countless women were harassed, abused, and driven out of well paying secure jobs. Those who did complain were subjected to ridicule, contempt and further harassment. The toll for pursuing a complaint was very steep and many women preferred to simply withdraw. The struggle for justice often cost women their livelihoods, their family and their sanity.

Bonnie has said that initially she did not realize what she was taking on…indeed she just wanted her supervisor to stop harassing her. But at every step of the way, as she encountered more inaction and injustice, her resolve strengthened. Time and again she was underestimated…by her supervisors, her coworkers, her union, the lawyers, the investigators and the Department of National Defence.  But Bonnie prevailed. She demanded justice and fairness and she resisted the many and concerted efforts to divert her from her goal. Her final victory was a victory for all working people. How did she do this?

The attached video interview of Bonnie answers this question!

In 1977 Bonnie Robichaud won a competition for a cleaner position at Canada Forces Base North Bay. After working in several low pay jobs Bonnie was initially delighted to get this unionized job with decent wages and benefits. When a new supervisor began sexually harassing her she tried avoiding him, told him to stop, all to no avail. He made it clear her job depended on her accepting his behavior. Bonnie needed the job, her family, including her husband and five children, depended on her and so she was forced to endure it.

When her probation period was up she swore she would never again submit to his harassment and she began her long battle for justice. Her Department of National Defence supervisors rejected her complaint. Her union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, tried to dissuade her. She was shunned in the workplace. But she persisted, through the complaint process, through the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, Federal Court and finally the Supreme Court of Canada. She began very much alone, save her supportive family, but as her case became public she gained many allies. She reached out to women, both within the PSAC and in the broader union movement. She drafted her own newsletter, bought a photocopier and mailed out hundreds of copies to her supporters, to politicians and to the press. She spearheaded a grassroots movement to challenge sexual harassment all while paying for her legal costs, and remaining in her unsafe workplace. This movement proved to be crucial. Her supporters within the PSAC pressured the national union to finally support her legal case.

She received positive national press and the justice of her fight was ultimately recognized when, in 1987 the Supreme Court rejected the Federal Court of Appeals decision and the new legal precedent was created…that Employers are responsible for maintaining a safe, respectful and harassment free workplace.

The impact of Bonnie’s victory cannot be overestimated. Although her case pertained only to federal workplaces it created lasting legal principles which apply across the country to this day. Human rights advocates have built upon the Robichaud case to expand human rights protection to vulnerable categories of workers and to address discriminatory behavior broadly.

Bonnie not only survived her ordeal she became a union activist, a much sought after public speaker, a mentor, a role model and a recognized pioneer and leader in the fight for human rights. She became an executive member in her union Local and became active in the BEST program, a CLC led literacy in the workplace initiative. She provided support and encouragement to countless women and organizations fighting against harassment. Speaking for many, Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube said, “Bonnie is my hero.”

Bonnie is justifiably proud of what she accomplished and is keenly aware of the need to continue to defend and expand our rights. She is happily retired and living in Ottawa with her husband with regular visits with her many grandchildren. She is currently working with the WHM and a publisher to tell her story, in her own words. We expect that this book will be available in 2021!