There are two sides to every story. And in the town of Spaniard's Bay, Newfoundland, that story is the self-immolation of the volunteer fire department.
On Tuesday, January 19, 20 firefighters resigned en masse after town council voted on whether to remove Fire Chief Victor Hiscock from his post in the wake sexual harassment allegations made by volunteer firefighter and municipal Councilor Brenda Seymour.
Seymour is the only woman in the town's fire brigade.
Council voted 4-3 against removing Hiscock from his post. But Hiscock resigned anyway, and 19 other firefighters quit in solidarity—along with Councilor Sheri Collins, the fire department's appointed liaison. Mayor Tony Menchion—who voted against removing Hiscock—has categorically denied that what occurred was in any way a "gender issue" and plans to get a PR group involved, as well as commissioning an independent investigation. The province's Department of Municipal Affairs also plans to get involved in sorting out the mess.
So what the fuck is happening in Spaniard's Bay, a town of a few thousand across the bay from St. John's? That depends on who you ask.
Woman in a Man's World
According to Brenda Seymour, her gender and her passion for the job made her a target both for the men at the fire department and women in the wider community.
"It's been an extreme battle," she told CBC. "It has affected my life personally. Some portions of it have been devastating."
Her worst experience as a firefighter occurred in April 2014, when a guest instructor showed a pornographic video at the end of a classroom session. She was the only woman in a room filled with male trainees.
Jeremy Hall was the instructor involved. For now, he's Chief of the Bay de Grave regional volunteer fire department, and says he has shown the porn video on multiple occasions "for a laugh." The video purportedly shows a woman putting out a kitchen fire with her ejaculate.
Now that Seymour's allegations have gone public, he expects to be removed as fire chief any time now. He's already been removed as an instructor. "I'll never teach again," he told CBC in a rare moment of televised self-awareness.
Although the video was shown by a guest instructor, Seymour felt it was Hiscock's responsibility to prevent things like "watching pornography in a professional setting" from happening.
"I do think it was a personal attack on me," she told CBC. "Our chief was 100 percent responsible... it was a failure in leadership."
But it was an incident in October 2015 that finally prompted Seymour to speak up about her harassment at town council last fall.
One day, she noticed her balaclava was missing and went to the chief's office for a new one. When Hiscock handed it to Seymour, another firefighter interjected that "you might want to go home and wash that, we jerked all over it." Spaniard's Bay firemen love weaponized jizz, apparently.
"I've got severe concerns trusting anything this fire chief does now," Seymour told CBC. "I don't think the fire chief is doing his job."
Seymour says things have gotten worse for her since she spoke out. She's even been struck with a coffee cup thrown from a moving vehicle while out walking. But some of the most perverse treatment has come from the other women in town.
"I received a letter that was posted in the neighbouring community of Bay Roberts," she told CBC. "There was no address. It was anonymously written to me... it was [online chat] transcripts: five of the firefighters' wives. Each wife was named as to what they were saying, and written on the outside of the transcript was 'I think you need to see this.' When I opened [it] up, I was shocked."
One of the women in the transcripts says "Brenda" is a "conniving witch" and should be burned at the stake. Another calls her a "slimy bitch" and suggests "we should hire a hit man."
Apparently there's nothing scarier for the desperate housewives of Spaniard's Bay than a woman who doesn't know her place.
Stand by Your Man
But others in the community insist there's another side to the story.
This latest fracas is not the first time Seymour and Hiscock have faced off. In 2010, Seymour was suspended and dismissed from the fire brigade—and barred from town council meetings—by Chief Hiscock because he found her to be insubordinate and overzealous in her pursuit of fire education and training courses. (With Level 2 Certification, Seymour is presently the highest trained firefighter in the brigade.)
She was later reinstated after an independent review of situation concluded her dismissal was unjust, and the author observed that "[some] would argue that [Seymour is an] individual you would want in your department: a person with a keen interest in being a member, a great willingness to learn, and boundless energy." But the report also noted that "her aggressive approach to [acquiring education and training] created a hostile atmosphere with her colleagues in the department."
Cory Mahaney, one of the firefighters who resigned in support of Hiscock, claims that it Seymour's personal conflict with the chief is the real motive behind her allegations.
"It seems to me that she has a personal issue with Fire Chief Victor Hiscock and is using her Level 2 Training to her advantage in front of the council to make motions to remove [him and] terminate his position," Mahaney wrote to the Conception Bay North Compass. He also could not fathom why Seymour would bring up her sexual harassment complaints to town council, instead of to the b'ys at their all-male fire department meetings.
"Mrs Seymour never voiced her opinion at the fire hall," Mahaney wrote. "She had no rights as a firefighter on Thursday nights to bring issues back to the council just because she was councilor when this was the reason [fire department liaison] Mrs Sheri Collins attended—it was her job not Brenda's."
But it's the women of Spaniard's Bay who have been the most publicly dismissive of Seymour. "I think it's utterly ridiculous,"resident Linda Mahoney told CBC. "I don't know what's going on internally, but they're all fine young men... I know each and every one of them, and they're all fine young men with nice families. I don't know what else to say. I think it's ridiculous. I think it's a shame and a sin."
Christine Saunders, one of the firefighters' wives, insists there are two sides to this story. "There's a lot that's undercover that people don't really know about," she told CBC. "It's just not the right way. We just want our fire department back, that's all."
Within hours of the resignations on Tuesday, a Support The Spaniard's Bay Fire Department group appeared on Facebook. The group was created by Kate Davis, daughter of assistant fire chief Randy Davis. "It's making me mad and upset that these men (including my father) are being accused for sexual harassment," Davis told the Avalon Community & Culture blog. "I grew up with these men and they are a bunch of awesome guys who are dedicated to our community, and to see them getting the bad end of this is horrible."
The group organized a rally outside the Spaniard's Bay town hall on Thursday night, which saw more than 200 residents turn out to support their men. Hiscock and the other firefighters received a heroes' welcome.
"I will stand behind our guys until the very end," wrote one member in a Facebook post. "I'm not only standing [behind] them because of [my fiancé] but because it's our town, it's our place to do so... Stick together like a small community should." And if there's one thing a small town should strive for, it is to never consider criticism or think about any of the things that transpire therein.
Other women were more transparently irked that Seymour didn't know her place. "She is a grown woman and the only grown woman in a firehouse with grown men," read one post to the group which has since been deleted. "She can't expect them to sit down, eat chocolates, talk about Fifty Shades of Grey and tampons."
Meanwhile, another Spaniard's Bay woman told an NTV reporter at the rally that "if [Brenda Seymour]'s going to be in a room of men, she has to be able to take the heat and take a joke."
Hell Hath No Fury
If sexual harassment did take place at the Spaniard's Bay fire department, it wouldn't be an isolated incident. As Jenny Wright pointed out on NTV Thursday night, this is a depressingly common problem. CBC's the fifth estate produced a documentary last year about the daily harassment and bullying many female firefighters throughout Canada face on a daily basis.
Spaniard's Bay is a small, close-knit community. It is not surprising that many people resent Brenda Seymour for disrupting its idyllic atmosphere by alleging that many of its firefighters are complicit in sexual harassment. Volunteer firefighting is a genuinely noble calling and no one wants to believe that the people they love could do anything heinous.
This might explain why an act of courage—a lone woman speaking out against powerful figures in a small town—appears to others in the community as a deceitful act of cowardice. She must be a liar or a "conniving witch," because these "fine young men with nice families" would never do anything wrong. No one wants to believe that the people they love can do bad things, however unwittingly. This is the mechanism by which sexism is reproduced.
There are two sides to every story. So which side is more plausible?
That a bossy shrew is conspiring to single-handedly bring down the Spaniard's Bay fire department and its beloved chief out of spite? Or, that an ambitious, assertive woman ran afoul of a well-documented culture of pervasive and casual sexism in a fire department that operated more like a frat house?
"Please do not post any more statuses, opinions, etc," Davis posted to the Facebook support group after the rally. "Our men have this under control now!"
Yes, they do. And in Spaniard's Bay, they always have.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.