OTTAWA – A former pilot is asking the Canadian Human Rights Commission to resurrect her “lifelong dream” to fly for a major airline – an ambition she abandoned five years ago after she was allegedly discriminated against by an Air Canada colleague because she’s a woman.
Jane Clegg fought back tears and paused several times Monday during her testimony at a human rights tribunal as she described the 2009 incident that eventually led her to quit the airline in April 2013.
Clegg, who wants the commission to order her reinstatement, was working as a second officer when she said she got into a heated argument with the captain of a flight bound for Fort Lauderdale after she raised concerns that the plane didn’t have enough fuel.
“I believed the incident was motivated by gender discrimination,” Clegg told the tribunal as she described being replaced on the flight for refusing to sign the flight plan over concerns about safety.
When she was later assigned to work on another flight with the same pilot, and raised concerns about it, she was effectively suspended without pay under what’s known as the airline’s “bidding around” system.
Air Canada, she said, defended the male pilot. “It felt like open season on female pilots,” said Clegg. “This truly was the beginning of the end of my career.”
Commission lawyer Daniel Poulin told the hearing the bidding around system “puts the onus on the victim” in cases where first officers want to avoid flying with another pilot accused of wrongdoing.
Poulin said a settlement was reached Friday with Air Canada over concerns the commission raised about the system. However, details of that settlement were not expected to be revealed until the tribunal releases a decision on Clegg’s case. That could take up to a year.
Clegg emphasized in her testimony that she believes Air Canada is a good, safe airline.
Judy Cameron, the first female pilot hired by the carrier in 1978, said she saw no signs of a systemic gender bias at Air Canada in her 37-year career, which ended with her retirement in May 2015.
“It wasn’t perfect, some things could be improved, but I never felt out of place, unwelcome, from the get go,” Cameron said in an interview. “The guys treated me like their daughter,” said Cameron, adding that she was hesitant to speak over concerns that her comments might be seen as disparaging a fellow female pilot who faced different work experiences.
But Clegg said hers was not an isolated case.
Wondering whether she was alone in her complaint, the one-time Canadian Forces VIP squadron pilot compiled a survey about gender discrimination and distributed it to other female pilots.
“I wanted to determine if this was something isolated or if this was something that my female pilot colleagues had also encountered,” she said. “Eighty per cent of the female pilots who had reported (back to me) had experienced incidents of harassment.”
Many of the respondents altered their work schedules to avoid the perpetrators of harassment and most said they didn’t have confidence that their complaints would be properly addressed, Clegg said – evidence, she argued, that Air Canada needs to improve its gender harassment policy.
But Clegg never linked the issues she was having with one of its male captains to gender bias until the airline found out about a scheduling conflict between the two nearly three years later, a lawyer for Air Canada told the tribunal.
“Air Canada never had a chance to address the complaint under its discrimination policies because no formal – or informal – complaint was ever filed,” said Karen Sargeant.
Clegg also wouldn’t co-operate when Air Canada did launch an investigation, Sargeant added.
In arguing against an order of reinstatement, Sargeant said Clegg’s actions in quitting her job were over the top, considering the allegations.
“Resignation was a disproportionate response,” she said.
Of the more than 3,500 pilots employed by Air Canada, 210 –_ less than six per cent – are women, a percentage the airline described as typical of the industry worldwide.
The hearing is expected to last several weeks.