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CBSA dog handler says she was ‘terrorized’ after fighting maternity leave rule

For years, Danielle Getzie had her dream job. One of those all-consuming, nothing-else-matters-because-I’ve-made-it jobs.

She was part of the Canada Border Services Agency’s selective dog handler program, tracking down contraband at the Vancouver airport with her drug-sniffing canine partner Nova.

“I would have considered, and I did consider, not having a family for my job, because it was that important to me,” she said from her Vancouver home.

“It was very well known that to be a female dog handler you could not have a family or think about having a family, or else you would be removed based on the policy.”

That policy caps the length of time trainers in the CBSA’s Detector Dog Service can be away from their animals at 90 days — making maternity leave and life as a new mom almost impossible.

Getzie said her superiors even told her she had better not get pregnant.

“And then as time went on, I started questioning that … and then I realized how wrong it was.”

CBSA officers Danielle Getzie and her Nova run through an obstacle course in this achieve photo.
CBSA officer Danielle Getzie and Nova run through an obstacle course. (Submitted by Danielle Getzie)

That realization set off a years-long fight with the border agency — one that has landed on the desk of the CBSA President Erin O’Gorman.

“The levels that retaliation reached far, far [exceeded] what I thought could have happened,” Getzie told CBC News.

In 2018, Getzie said she decided to grieve the detector dog policy, arguing it discriminated against those taking maternity and paternity leave. She filed the grievance after watching a colleague come back within 89 days of having a baby.

“It was horrible what she had to do to sort of accommodate to be back in the workplace,” she said.

Getzie said the fight became personal when she realized during the grievance process that she was pregnant.

During the initial grievance period, the regional director general agreed with her and, according to a copy of the decision obtained by CBC News, deemed her complaint was valid. The adjudicator also wrote that the dog handler manual should be amended.

“I’ll never forget at the end of it,” Getzie said, tearing up. “She stood up and she gave me a big hug and she said, ‘You just go and take care of your family because this should never have happened.'”

But the win was short-lived, she said.

Getzie alleges colleagues ran a smear campaign 

The 90-day policy remains on the books. And Getzie alleges her grievance set off years of bullying and harassment in retaliation.

Getzie accuses managers of abetting a smear campaign to get her off the dog team, despite the fact that she’s won national competitions. In an official complaint lodged with the CBSA, she accused co-workers of threatening to destroy her and demeaning her in the workplace after she filed the grievance.

“I have been threatened that ‘if it were up to me, you would not be in this position’ and ‘if you ever cross me, I will f–k you over,'” says a copy of her complaint.

With Nova set to retire at age 11, Getzie said, she was promised a second dog. Instead, she alleges she was dropped suddenly from the dog handler program without cause.

Getzie said she tried to raise the matter internally before going public.

“I wanted to just return to work and do my job and do what I loved. But I was terrorized continuously,” she said.

“I kept going to management saying this is getting worse, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, I just want to work and do my job.

“The advice that I got from management was to hide, don’t go into these areas where these people are, don’t go here, just stay away from this person, just stay away from that person.”

Danielle Getzie's dog Nova winning a Canadian Police Canine Association award.
Danielle Getzie’s dog Nova won first place in a Canadian Police Canine Association competition. (Submitted by Danielle Getzie)

In 2020, Getzie took her case to the CBSA’s National Integrity Centre of Expertise (NICE), a centralized unit set up to independently respond to allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

“It’s called the NICE unit and it is not nice,” said Getzie, who is now on a doctor-ordered leave of absence. 

Despite a federal law that stipulates CBSA harassment complaints have to be resolved within a year and a day, Getzie said her nearly three-year-old case seems to have sputtered to a halt.

“It’s sickening to think that any workplace could be like this, let alone a federal government workplace,” she said. 

CBSA defends 90-day policy

Earlier this year, Customs and Immigration Union president Mark Weber wrote to the head of the CBSA accusing an investigator of pressuring Getzie to destroy recordings and stalling the case.

Weber said investigators haven’t even started to comb through most of the allegations in Getzie’s case in nearly three years.

“We reached out to the current CBSA president, because really this case is one of the most extreme that we’ve seen,” he told CBC News.

“It seems that there’s a real lack of will to get to the root of the toxicity.”

CBSA denied a request for an interview, saying it couldn’t talk about the specifics of Getzie’s case due to the Privacy Act. 

Canada Border Services Agency workers at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.
The Canada Border Services Agency defends the 90-day policy, arguing it helps maintain the bond between handlers and their dogs. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“The CBSA is committed to creating a safe, healthy, harassment and violence-free work environment for all employees,” said spokesperson Rebecca Purdy in an emailed statement.

“That responsibility is taken seriously and CBSA management is accountable for making decisions that provide a respectful and professional work environment for all and at all times.”

Weber said that if that’s true, the CBSA should dump its 90-day leave policy for dog handers.

“I mean, it’s really shocking that in the 21st century our union has to waste time arguing a process that is really that clearly discriminatory,” he said.

“Any woman who decides to have a child, you’ve lost your dog. And it’s really that simple of a choice for women who choose this career.”

The CBSA defends the 90-day absence policy, arguing it’s necessary to maintain the detector dog’s skills.

“As a handler and detector dog become a team and develop a bond through our intensive training program, it has been shown that after 90 days of absence, the detector dog’s effectiveness decreases significantly and re-training may be necessary,” said Purdy.

“When leave exceeds the 90 days, dogs are returned to the CBSA College for evaluation and re-assignment to another handler to ensure a detector dog team remains operational in a full time capacity. However, reassignment places a certain amount of stress on the dog and is not always successfully achievable.”

Union says it’s ‘screaming into the wind’

Purdy acknowledged the agency is supposed to resolve complaints within a year and a day.

“That being said, some external factors may affect the timeline, including the absence of involved parties. Should the matter proceed to investigation, there may also be delays in conducting it,” she said.

“The absence of involved parties remains a factor as well as the investigator selection process, since options are limited and must be agreed to by all parties.”

Purdy said CBSA is working with Public Service and Procurement Canada on identifying more external investigators.

She also said the purpose of the federal government’s Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations “is not to find fault, nor does it offer any personal remedy.

“Rather, it is aimed at determining the root cause of [an] occurrence to recommend systemic measures to prevent a reoccurrence of harassment and violence.”

Weber said it’s a broken process. 

“The best we can hope for going through the NICE process is recommendations on how to make harassment and discrimination less likely in the future,” he said.

“It doesn’t provide any kind of personal remedy for Danielle. It’s not going to lead to any kind of discipline or consequences for anyone who put her through this.”

CBSA officers Danielle Getzie and her dog Nova compete in this achieve photo.
CBSA officer Danielle Getzie and Nova show off their skills. (Submitted by Danielle Getzie )

Weber said Getzie’s case points to a broader problem within the CBSA. The union argues border officers don’t have a fair process to lean on if they face harassment from a manager.

“It feels like we’re screaming into the wind, ” he said. 

“The situation that we’re in right now is essentially, if it’s a manager doing it, we don’t really know where to go with it to ever see any kind of action taken, or [for] there be any kind of follow-up.”

Similar allegations were lodged against the RCMP for years. Following a $125-million class-action lawsuit, the Mounties set up an independent centre to investigate allegations of harassment and violence outside the chain of command.

More than once, the federal government has introduced proposed legislation to allow members of the public to report concerns about CBSA members to an independent body.

Bill C-20 would create a Public Complaints and Review Commission that would give the existing RCMP watchdog the additional responsibility of handling public complaints about the CBSA.

Weber said he’d like to see that bill amended to allow CBSA employees to lodge complaints as well.

A scathing 2020 auditor general report found CBSA knew about ongoing problems with harassment, discrimination and violence in its workplaces — but didn’t do enough to address them.

CBSA said it has implemented the report’s three recommendations, including one to establish the National Integrity Centre of Expertise.

Weber said the problem persists.

The union said that out of more than 2,000 grievances filed against the CBSA that are at the final stage, about 13 per cent involve discrimination and harassment.

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