Firouzeh Zarabi-Majd always wanted to be a cop, and she loved the job. Even when her fellow officers started harassing her, she said nothing at first. That’s the code—you don’t go public, no matter what. But eventually she had to speak up, and it cost her everything
The first time Firouzeh Zarabi-Majd met a police officer, she was 13 years old. She and a friend had slipped out to a 7-Eleven for Slurpees without telling her mother, Fatima. Firouzeh, known to friends and family as Effy, was Fatima’s baby, the youngest of four kids. The family had moved to Toronto from war-torn Iran just a few years earlier, settling south of Bathurst and Wilson, and Effy’s English still wasn’t great. At school, she was routinely bullied. When, after about an hour, Fatima couldn’t find her, she panicked and called the police, saying her daughter was missing. Effy returned home to find a pair of uniformed constables standing in her living room. They were tall, kind and compassionate, she remembered, and they seemed as relieved to see her as Fatima was. When she grew up, Effy thought, she wanted to be just like them.
Effy’s mother was an art teacher, her father a civil engineer, and they hoped that their kids would become lawyers or doctors. But, by the time Effy graduated from high school in the late 1990s, she was set on a career in law enforcement. She wanted to do something that she thought would be helpful and courageous, something that would make her mother proud. In truth, Fatima disliked the idea—policing was too dangerous, she said—but after she passed away in 2001, Effy forged ahead, enrolling in the police foundations program at Humber College. One of her close friends from that time described her as ideal law enforcement material—“reliable, resilient, always the one to stand up for the right thing.”
At age 27, Zarabi-Majd applied to join the Toronto Police Service and, after a lengthy interview and vetting process, was hired as a cadet. Her first task: three months of training at the Ontario Police College. She was one of few women in her class and one of even fewer racialized women: about three-quarters of the class, she estimated, were white men. Her male training sergeant warned female recruits not to have sex with their colleagues lest they be branded “metro mattresses” or “pincushions.” That male recruits received no such warning didn’t really bother Zarabi-Majd—she’d worked in other predominantly male environments before, such as security—and in the beginning, she didn’t question it. She was too focused on passing.
Becoming a cop, her instructors told her, meant that she was joining a family. It sounded clichéd—what workplace these days doesn’t pride itself on being a family?—but here, the ethos ran deeper. The family was on one side; the rest of the world was on the other. And if you had a problem with the family, you solved it within the family. You didn’t go to the public. You didn’t go to the media. You didn’t rat on the family. Zarabi-Majd didn’t have time to challenge this thinking: her classes were intense and fast-paced, and she just wanted to do well. She didn’t realize she was also being taught that a good cop was a paragon of self-repression. “If you wanted to have feelings, you needed to go home,” she says. “The minute you showed fear, anxiety, any type of weakness, people started looking at you differently.”
After graduation, in May 2009, Zarabi-Majd began her career as a fourth-class constable at 51 Division, at Front and Parliament. The Toronto Police Service is the largest municipal force in the country, and 51 Division is one of the busiest precincts in North America. The division, which covers the neighbourhoods of St. James Town, Regent Park and South Riverdale, has more than its share of hospitals, halfway houses, mental health facilities and drug use. Zarabi-Majd was initially assigned to the primary response unit, out in a patrol car answering emergency and non-emergency calls alike. It was a gruelling job and, as her mother had feared, dangerous. But it was also, for Zarabi-Majd, fulfilling. She was giddy, proud and idealistic. “I loved it,” she says. “I felt like it was my calling.”
It took just a few months for the reality of the job to chip away at her vision of policing. At first, she tried to let it all roll off: the sexist jokes and racist remarks, the deep guffaws that followed both. She told herself that the behaviour wouldn’t last. Besides, she was a rookie, and she didn’t want to be ostracized. There were certainly good, compassionate cops at 51 Division. She worked with some of them. But, as the years passed, Zarabi-Majd found it increasingly difficult to avoid the bigoted, malicious ones, especially since so many of them seemed to be in charge. From her training, she knew that anyone who drew attention to this fact, anyone who dared challenge the status quo, would be swiftly punished—demeaned, attacked, driven out. The family that she had so readily joined could, in an instant, turn on those it perceived as a threat. And if any cop tried to fight back, she soon learned, the family would do everything in its power to destroy them.
Zarabi-Majd was, by all accounts, an excellent cop. Her early evaluations were glowing. Her superiors repeatedly praised her interpersonal skills, and she was described in various professional assessments as “amiable,” “trustworthy” and having “a very pleasant personality.” When she expressed interest in becoming an investigator or working in the drug squad, her bosses were encouraging. Most of them, that is. A year into the job, Zarabi-Majd ran afoul of a staff sergeant who thought she spent too much time on her phone. He left her on desk duty—a common assignment for new recruits, but one Zarabi-Majd remained stuck with for much longer than most of her fellow rookies. After months passed, she worried that being away from the action would slow down her career. Speaking up about it, however, seemed like a surefire way to jeopardize her job.
At the same time, there was a more persistent, more noxious problem—one that grew increasingly difficult to endure in silence. Male cops routinely made misogynistic and humiliating remarks about Zarabi-Majd’s body and those of other female colleagues. They asked her what sexual positions she liked, speculated about whether she shaved her genitals, wondered aloud if she would have sex with them or if she had any “hot” friends who would. They made jokes about women who had been sexually assaulted. They flipped through porn magazines in the station, occasionally pinning up pictures torn from their pages. Zarabi-Majd’s ethnicity added a layer of racism to the harassment. One supervisor referred to her as a “Musi,” prompting other officers to use the same Islamophobic slur.
By late 2010, she’d had enough. One day, after the staff sergeant who put her on desk duty berated her, shouting that she was lazy, she went to her union, the Toronto Police Association, to voice her concerns. She told them she was being harassed, sidelined and unfairly singled out, and they effectively told her to suck it up. For the next three years, the harassment continued, and each time, she tried again. She told her union reps about everything—the hostile staff sergeant, the sexist and racist comments, the toxic atmosphere—but left each time feeling discouraged. To lodge a formal grievance, they suggested, would adversely affect her career—she would be shunned, passed over for promotions, branded a troublemaker or a liar. At various points, the reps advised her to shrug off the misogyny and racism; argued that the other officers were just “kids” who were unaware of how offensive their comments were; and told her to take up her concerns directly with the perpetrators. No offending officer was confronted by the union, let alone reprimanded. By mid-2014, she stopped reporting her harassment altogether.
Zarabi-Majd fought back in small ways—like surreptitiously tearing down the offensive images when she could—but she also felt compelled to listen to the TPA’s advice and bite her tongue. She was one of few female officers at 51 Division; with little union support, it seemed safer to brave the indignities. But then it got worse. In the fall of 2014, shortly after she finished her shift, Zarabi-Majd received a call from a fellow officer who said he’d had too much to drink, was in the station’s parking lot and needed a lift home. She turned around and picked him up, along with another officer, and drove to his apartment. When they arrived, the two male cops cornered Zarabi-Majd and demanded that she have sex with them. Shocked and scared, she refused. They threatened to tell the rest of the squad that she had anyway. Zarabi-Majd managed to leave, but they didn’t let up. One of them later began mocking her police work. And they both continued making lewd and racist comments. In one group chat that Zarabi-Majd saw, one of her harassers asked, “Is Effy’s bush all brillowy like a blk chick?”
A year later, another male officer from 51 Division—one she had considered a good friend—grabbed her, forcing a kiss. When she recoiled, he responded that she’d regret not having sex with him. That same year, three cops at 51 Division were accused of sexually assaulting a parking enforcement officer. After one of Zarabi-Majd’s former supervisors was reprimanded for the incident, which he insisted he’d had nothing to do with, he made a crack in front of her during parade: “Next time you guys have a shift party, then go to the strip club, and Effy wants to go back to the hotel with you, I can’t be involved.” Zarabi-Majd tried to keep her chin up, but each instance felt like a physical blow, wearing away at her well-being.
After her former friend tried to force himself on her, Zarabi-Majd didn’t even bother to go to the union. Instead, she reached out to other agencies for help—the TPS’s Special Investigations Unit, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, the OPP, the RCMP. She told them about the forced kiss, the culture, her increasing isolation. When she received an answer at all, it was that her particular situation fell outside their jurisdiction. With each dismissal, her frustration—and her fury—grew. So, too, did her fear. She began looking over her shoulder at the station, out on calls, even at home. She’d seen what happened to cops who complained about their colleagues: suddenly, their calls for backup went unanswered. “It’s a very scary place to be as a police officer,” she says. “It’s not like working at a bank. You depend on people for your life.”
Soon, she even questioned her ability to be a cop: how can you protect others if you can’t protect yourself? By 2018, Zarabi-Majd felt like most of the criminals she was fighting were within the TPS. Her mental and physical health eroded. She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop smoking and began to lose her hair. She withdrew from family and friends, slept with a baseball bat by the front door. Her entire sense of self had been shaken. Her dream job had become a nightmare.
Policing is a fraught vocation. The hours can be long, relationships can become strained, and though many people admire and respect the police, just as many hate and fear them. People’s perceptions of the job are skewed by its glamourized portrayal in TV, movies and books. The job can be unpredictable but also tedious and frustrating. The average cop today has to deal with a wide range of societal ills—an overwhelming mental health crisis, an unending overdose epidemic, increasing domestic violence—for which they are inadequately trained. And within police services themselves, the toll this takes on officers is still underacknowledged: PTSD is pervasive and often untreated. The potential for lethal danger lurks around every corner, and while its overall occurrence is exaggerated, particularly by those TV shows and movies, the spectre is real.
All of these factors, combined with the fact that cops rely on one another for their physical safety, creates a culture that separates them from, and makes them suspicious of, outsiders. The demographic homogeneity of police services perpetuates this insularity: about 80 per cent of Toronto police officers are men, and 74 per cent are white. After years of attempted reform and modernization, and despite the continent-wide reckoning that occurred after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, racism, homophobia and sexism are still tolerated or ignored. Many experts—criminologists, politicians, lawyers, even former members of police services and boards—argue that racism and sexism are systemic and fundamental parts of police culture.
At the heart of policing, and the solidarity among officers, is a culture of silence so notorious that it has a name—the blue wall. Officers are trained to protect one another at all costs. This means physically, of course, but also professionally. Police are taught not to expose fellow officers for bad or illegal behaviour. Officers routinely perjure themselves in tribunals and courtrooms in order to protect their own. In 2021, in one high-profile example, a judge ruled that an entire team of Toronto “gun-and-gangs” cops had conspired to lie under oath. Loyalty to the badge comes before everything else, and nothing—not a crooked cop, not flagrant racism, not unrelenting sexual harassment—trumps that rule. The system protects cops, and in turn, cops protect the system. If a cop challenges the accepted order, colleagues will warn them to shut up or face the consequences.
Over the decades, there have been hundreds of stories of Canadian police officers, from the RCMP to city forces, abusing their power, with fellow officers and superiors turning a blind eye or actively covering up such activity. When malfeasance or even criminal behaviour is uncovered, officers routinely receive only the mildest of punishments, like paid suspension. In 2016, veteran Waterloo cop Kelly Donovan tried to expose corruption within her force. Her allegations were dismissed, and rather than being commended, Donovan was charged with several counts of misconduct. She was subsequently relegated to administrative duty, harassed and shunned by fellow officers. She ultimately quit the force. In a book she published about the ordeal, Police Line: Do Not Cross, Donovan argues that, while Ontario officers take two oaths—an oath of office and an oath of secrecy—the unwritten one that governs them is an “oath of unconsciousness,” which promises to keep secret everything that could discredit the police.
Reinforcing this culture of blind loyalty is the fact that police largely police themselves. Within the force, the Professional Standards Unit (formerly Internal Affairs) is responsible for promoting and supporting professionalism and compliance with the Police Services Act. But Professional Standards is staffed by active officers on rotation; after five years, they go back to working with the very cops they might have been investigating. Conflicts of interest are unavoidable. At the provincial level, there is the Special Investigations Unit, but its mandate is limited: it’s responsible only for determining whether an officer’s conduct has violated the Criminal Code. If it has, the officer still has to be charged and prosecuted, then a court determines guilt or innocence.
“If we’re cops and we’re not allowed to talk about criminals, then what the hell are we doing here?”
The SIU lays charges in less than five per cent of the cases it investigates. Between 2015 and 2020, not a single Toronto officer was found guilty of sexually harassing their colleagues. The three 51 Division officers who were charged with sexually assaulting the parking enforcement officer were suspended with pay and eventually acquitted. They subsequently sued the Toronto Police Services Board for malicious prosecution. Other layers of oversight—such as the Police Services Board, the civilian body that oversees the TPS; the Office of the Independent Police Review Director; the Ontario Civilian Police Commission; the Ontario Police Arbitration Commission—have different responsibilities and mandates, but each also has its deficiencies. Namely, a lack of transparency, insufficient rigour and a fear of TPS leadership.
One of the TPS’s most prominent critics is Alok Mukherjee, who was the Toronto Police Services Board chair between 2005 and 2015, where he frequently clashed with former police chief Bill Blair. He says the web of oversight agencies erroneously creates the impression that there’s plenty to hold police officers accountable, but their impact is negligible. “If you look at 10, 15, 20 years of data,” says Mukherjee, “there’s been no change in police behaviour.”
A 2020 Fifth Estate investigation reported that there were 38 ongoing complaints alleging sexual misconduct by Toronto officers against colleagues, and between 2017 and 2020, 49 allegations of sexual harassment by Toronto officers have been reported to the SIU. In 2019, facing intense public scrutiny over such allegations, the TPS hired Deloitte to investigate workplace well-being, harassment and discrimination. The resulting report was published in 2022 and found that 60 per cent of TPS employees had experienced or witnessed some form of workplace harassment or discrimination in the past five years. It highlighted, among many other problems, a “general lack of trust in the internal complaints process, citing biased investigations and a lack of accountability.”
Zarabi-Majd wanted justice, but she also wanted something simpler: to do her job in a workplace free of harassment. By 2018, it was clear to her that neither the TPS nor the TPA would help her get that. She knew that the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario wasn’t a perfect choice. A tribunal case could take several years to be heard and award relatively small damages in the end. And there was another big drawback: the HRTO is limited to providing remedial awards for violations of the Ontario Human Rights Code, whereas a civil or criminal court could theoretically dole out more severe punishments. Still, in 2018, she hired a lawyer to represent her at the HRTO, initially seeking, among other things, several procedural changes at the TPS and $575,000 in damages.
As she waited for her hearing, she kept searching for another option—one with more teeth. That year, she attended hearings in a class action suit against the Waterloo Regional Police Service and Police Association. There, half a dozen officers, including lead plaintiff Angie Rivers, alleged routine sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of their male colleagues and superiors. Rivers described how efforts to address these issues internally were met with dismissal, degradation and retaliation. But the judge ruled that, because the officers were unionized and governed by a collective agreement, they fell outside the jurisdiction of the courts: any workplace disputes had to be addressed by the HRTO or a labour arbitrator. This precedent had been set in a 1995 Supreme Court decision, Weber v. Ontario Hydro. The decision incensed Zarabi-Majd, but it also gave her an idea: what if they could successfully challenge Weber and change the law? Then they could drag the TPS in front of a real judge and, perhaps, force real consequences.
In November 2018, the Toronto Sun ran a story on Zarabi-Majd and Jessica McInnis, another Toronto cop (and once Zarabi-Majd’s supervisor) who had experienced relentless harassment and had filed her own HRTO application. The story quoted a high-powered employment lawyer, Howard Levitt, who suggested that civil courts were a superior venue for women to present allegations of sexual harassment, remarking, “The accused cannot run and hide in civil litigation.” Levitt was aggressive and outspoken. He also seemed to firmly believe in obtaining justice for survivors of sexual assault. Zarabi-Majd was impressed enough to reach out. If anyone could overturn Weber, she thought, it was Levitt.
Zarabi-Majd decided to shift her focus away from her HRTO case—which remained active—to zero in on challenging Weber. She, McInnis and a third officer hired Levitt in 2019. He gathered evidence of sexual harassment and discrimination—sustained, malicious, overt—and presented it to the TPS. While Zarabi-Majd hoped he would take on Weber, Levitt pursued a settlement. In the summer of 2019, both sides agreed to mediation, avoiding the courts altogether. By then, Zarabi-Majd had been on sick leave for roughly a year, starting in June 2018, after receiving diagnoses of anxiety, depression and PTSD. Throughout the proceedings, she fought vehemently with both Levitt and the mediator. (When I reached out to Levitt, he told me that he couldn’t comment on the case without breaching his duty of confidentiality.)
“There’s only one kind of bad cop who has to be pushed out: the whistleblower. They’re bullied and marginalized until they’re eliminated”
After two days of mediation, the TPS offered settlements to each of the three women. Zarabi-Majd’s offer was $1.3 million—a combination of a lump-sum payout and a reduced salary that would expire when she was 50. The amount was theoretically enough for her to start her life over. The only hitch: she would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The other women said yes to their deals. Zarabi-Majd did not. Her career and identity, she told them, didn’t come that cheap. In her last three years of active duty, her base salary was $98,000. After Levitt’s cut, she’d be left with just $200,000 of settlement money plus her reduced salary. More importantly, she wanted to keep talking, as loudly and as publicly as she could. “I was like, fuck, if we’re cops and we’re not allowed to talk about criminals, then what the hell are we doing here?” she says.
She also refused to pay the $200,000 that Levitt initially billed her, claiming that he had failed to pursue her goal of overturning Weber. Levitt was furious and even questioned Zarabi-Majd’s mental health claims; in emails that Zarabi-Majd showed me, he wrote, “You purport to be a victim and take the credit that comes from genuine victims and then abuse it.” In 2021, he won a partial victory in court, and she was ordered to pay him roughly $91,000. To her, the whole debacle cemented what she was already thinking: the system was a sham. The accused went unpunished, and the police service and board didn’t have to pay a cent—all of their legal fees and the settlement itself came out of tax dollars, paid from a fund administered by the city’s Insurance and Risk Management Office. Meanwhile, women were silenced.
But this episode also steeled Zarabi-Majd’s resolve. In 2020, she hired a new human rights lawyer, Wade Poziomka, and together they began to add more evidence to her ongoing HRTO application. They filed what’s known as a duty of fair representation complaint with the Ontario Police Arbitration Commission in which she argued that the TPA had failed to adequately support her. TPA president Jon Reid denied this failure. “The TPA has always provided its members with full and fair representation, and Cst. Zarabi-Majd is no different,” he told me in an email. “The TPA is—now—aware that she was not satisfied with the outcome of the recommendations and particularly with the actions of the employer, but she did not advise the association of that until relatively recently.”
The years of legal jousting have been both exhausting and expensive for Zarabi-Majd. After she went on sick leave, her salary was reduced to $75,000. It was later reduced again after her sick leave was transitioned to disability leave. She eventually had to sell her two-bedroom condo at Dundas and Carlaw. Her legal fees surpassed $100,000; because she couldn’t pay Levitt right away, his firm garnished, and continues to garnish, her pay. But, once Zarabi-Majd started fighting back, each battle seemed more necessary than the last. She couldn’t stop, even if she wanted to.
By the fall of 2019, Zarabi-Majd believed that she had nothing to lose. The police had failed her; the law had failed her; her own body was failing her—she had frequent nightmares and flashbacks, couldn’t eat, avoided friends. She was broke. Nothing, so far, had worked. Nothing had changed. She was angry, grieving, unmoored. While waiting for the agonizingly slow-moving human rights application to be heard, she found another way to transmute her rage and pain into something useful. Twitter (now X) had famously been a megaphone for a variety of movements: the Arab Spring, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter. It was a proven way to quickly build community—and outrage.
Zarabi-Majd had already begun treating her personal story as a professional case. She had doggedly documented evidence and had educated herself on relevant case law. She may have been the case’s only investigator, but she wasn’t about to let it go cold. On Twitter, she could make her evidence public. And if the public knew exactly what had been done to her, and what the police were still doing to other women like her, maybe something would finally change. That October, she started an anonymous account called Dirty Shades of Blue. Her avatar eventually showed her wearing a Toronto Police Service tuque, her face partly concealed by a black scarf. Her bio read: “Policewoman living in exile! Whistleblower fighting for justice alongside all the warriors! Here to empower women! Be Brave.”
Over the next three years, Zarabi-Majd posted more than 25,000 tweets, and each one had the blunt force of a nightstick. She accused the TPA of being “like pimps” who “take women’s money & watch us get sexually abused.” She shared screenshots of racist, sexist and homophobic text messages and memes exchanged by active-duty cops. In one instance, an officer asks if another officer is a “big homo” before posting a picture of the same officer with another man, saying, “Cause he’s out solo with a dude who appears to be a big queen.” Another featured an image of a woman holding a Black baby with the caption, “If you hold a black baby to your ear, you can hear the police sirens.” By then, her list of enemies was long—Doug Ford, John Tory, then–police chief James Ramer, the individual cops who had harassed her—and she attacked each of them frequently and without quarter. “I was trying to shake them to their core,” she told me. “I was trying to make them uncomfortable.”
The feed was many things at once: a declaration of war, a display of the ugliness of Toronto police culture and, ultimately, a self-portrait of a woman at her breaking point. Many other wronged former cops have Twitter accounts, but Dirty Shades of Blue was singular in its defiance, impulsiveness and reckless rancour. Throughout her years of abuse and even after she went on sick leave, Zarabi-Majd grappled with suicidal thoughts. Her Twitter account became a lifeline. “Without a way to get rid of that negative, toxic, abusive violence that I had buried so deep in my soul,” she says, “without that coming out of me, I would have died.”
While the account never had more than 7,000 followers, TPS brass were predictably outraged. Zarabi-Majd had done everything she’d been taught not to do: she’d aired the force’s dirty laundry in public; she’d openly ridiculed and shamed her fellow cops and her bosses. She was ordered to appear before Professional Standards in February of 2021. She refused. A few days after that, Zarabi-Majd was warned by her acting superintendent to stop posting any material about TPS members or she would be disciplined. Not only did she refuse that order, she mocked it, posting a copy of the order and tweeting, “Don’t think you have the right to tell me how to speak about my trauma and my lived experiences of abuse at work.”
Whistleblowers have not historically fared well at the TPS, or at other Canadian police services, no matter what kinds of abuses they’re exposing. In 2006, Jim Cassells, a 30-year veteran, went public with allegations of police brutality and internal corruption. After talking to a Toronto Star reporter, he was charged with misconduct and branded a liar by then-chief Bill Blair. Bruce Kruger, a decorated OPP officer, tried to take his struggles with PTSD to his superiors in order to prevent officer suicides; he was repeatedly ignored and derided, with only an ineffectual ombudsman’s report for his efforts.
Christopher J. Williams is a researcher, author and member of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, a watchdog group. “In the context of Toronto and elsewhere, there’s only one kind of bad, contemptible cop who has to be pushed out,” Williams says, “and that cop is the whistleblower. They’re bullied, they’re intimidated and they’re marginalized until they’re eliminated from the ranks.” To highlight the absurdity of the culture, Williams compared the situation with that of a teacher who catches one of his colleagues abusing their students. That teacher reports it to the vice-principal and principal. Then, those superiors turn on the teacher himself, and he is removed from the school while the perpetrator remains—a situation almost impossible to imagine.
After several delays, the TPS held Zarabi-Majd’s disciplinary hearing in November of 2022. It was presided over by Robin McElary-Downer, a retired Simcoe County deputy chief. Zarabi-Majd faced 11 counts of misconduct. Her counsel argued that her PTSD symptoms would make it impossible for her to defend herself—that going over the evidence would essentially re-traumatize her and set back any recovery. But a requested adjournment was denied—the TPS successfully argued that, on Twitter, Zarabi-Majd had gone over the evidence repeatedly and to no ill effect—and the hearing proceeded without Zarabi-Majd in attendance. On December 19, 2022, after a two-day hearing, she was found guilty of four counts of insubordination and four counts of discreditable conduct.
In her ruling, McElary-Downer didn’t doubt that Zarabi-Majd had experienced harassment and discrimination. She wrote that, in terms of sexual harassment, the police service had “come a long way, but clearly there is still work to do.” Nevertheless, she argued that this abuse did not entitle or excuse Zarabi-Majd’s behaviour. “There are appropriate avenues to report such unwanted behaviour,” McElary-Downer wrote, “and posting tweets on social media damaging the reputation of the police service and others is not an option.” From the police’s perspective, the problem was the embarrassment, not the abuse. Zarabi-Majd found the tribunal farcical. She’d already spent years reporting her harassment through the appropriate avenues. It clearly hadn’t worked.
If found guilty of misconduct, Ontario police officers are typically suspended with pay. Even if dismissed, they stay on the payroll for as long as they continue to appeal. And if found guilty of criminal offences, they cannot be fired until sentenced to jail time. Over the years, among other crimes, Toronto cops have been charged with assault, abuse of prisoners and impaired driving. In none of those cases were the officers fired. But, after being found guilty of insubordination, Zarabi-Majd was told to resign from the force in seven days or she would be terminated. On May 9, 2023, she was dismissed. “Taking into consideration the nature and seriousness of the misconduct, a demonstrated inability to reform and the likely damage to the TPS,” wrote McElary-Downer, “coupled with all the other factors I contemplated, I find Constable Zarabi-Majd’s usefulness as a police officer spent.”
In early July of 2023, I met Zarabi-Majd at her home, a bungalow north of the city. Though she’d lived here for five years, it had the secluded, ramshackle feel of an intermittently inhabited safe house. Despite the season, a large artificial Christmas tree occupied a corner of the living room, stripped of ornaments (“I like the greenery,” she said), and Buddhist iconography was scattered here and there.
It was the home, perhaps, of someone who lived mostly in her head. Because of her PTSD, Zarabi-Majd said, there are days when she doesn’t have the strength to shower, let alone leave the house. She was in therapy, but sleep was still often difficult, her dreams overrun by scenes from 51 Division. She looked like she had hardly slept the night before—her long hair was tousled, her large, dark eyes at once warm and haunted—yet she was dressed as if she’d just rolled out of bed: a plain black T-shirt, billowy paisley pyjama pants, socks and slides. She was 42 but somehow looked both older and younger.
We sat in the kitchen, sipping water, and spoke for about three hours. What emerged most from our initial conversation was the profound loss she felt. She had been robbed of her job and salary and home but also, to a certain extent, her identity. She’d entered the force brimming with idealism. All of that was gone. While she still described herself as a “peaceful, loving” person, the decade of harassment and discrimination, as well as the subsequent years of frustrating legal wrangling, had reduced her life to a hard and bitter battle. When she’d first joined the TPS, she had been thrilled to become part of that family. Now, she recognized that idea as an insidious, destructive fiction. The family only protects its own, and she had always been on the outside.
During the mediation with Levitt, the mediator had called her the most difficult and unreasonable person he’d ever encountered in his professional life. Poziomka, her human rights lawyer, by contrast, told me that she was one of the most principled clients he’d ever had. Such contradictions were present throughout our conversation. She was unapologetically angry but also vulnerable and eloquent. As she outlined her story, patiently and in detail, she veered, almost without warning, from legal analysis to spiritual pensée to well-considered invective. She swore reflexively and relentlessly, and at times, there seemed to be no difference between the person sitting in front of me and her Twitter persona.
Ultimately, though, despite the profanity and rage, she was entirely reasonable. When I casually said of the police service that she seemed to want to burn it all down, she sharply corrected me: “That sounds so childish.” What she actually wants, she said, is genuine, meaningful change from the top down. She was dismissive of training programs, of reports like Deloitte’s, of the lip service that chiefs and police boards have paid to the problem. She wanted real legislative change that would take power and jurisdiction away from the TPA and TPS and their current oversight bodies. She wanted NDAs abolished for cases of sexual abuse and discrimination. In the end, Zarabi-Majd just wanted the police force to be like every other workplace, where sexual violence isn’t normalized, where discrimination is cause for disgrace, where employees who do wrong are punished.
Some of this is being addressed, albeit very slowly. Last February, the Canadian Bar Association voted to end the use of NDAs in abuse, harassment and discrimination cases. Other lawyers continue to challenge Weber, and at least one I spoke to, Angelo Sciacca, is pushing the attorney general of Ontario to amend legislation. Still, many of the conversations I had about Zarabi-Majd’s case, whether with lawyers, ex-cops or police critics, sooner or later took on a tone of defeat. The system was too big and too broken, they said, and there was no political will to fix it. The reckoning of the past few years, the talk of defunding and reform, had achieved, it seemed, the opposite effect—the police had become only more defensive, more entrenched. Depending on when I spoke with her, Zarabi-Majd could seem similarly disheartened. She believed that the service and the union would keep dragging things out, that her case would languish and that the status quo would prevail.
But, in other ways, she wanted to move on. Last year, she took a yoga teaching course. She’s thought about working with animals. Perhaps she could start some kind of foundation. A part of her wants to just leave Canada forever. At the same time, she said, she rarely indulges in long-term planning; mostly, she focuses on making it through each day. She views her self-preservation as another form of warfare: as long as she lives, they haven’t defeated her. On her stronger days, she insists that she isn’t going away, no matter how long the fight may drag on. “Change won’t happen in my lifetime,” she said. “But, if I can make any dent in it for somebody else to pick up later, then I’m proud of myself.”
As of the start of winter, her human rights and duty of fair representation applications continued to wend their way through the system. And after her dismissal, she filed an appeal with the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. It’s scheduled for January. (Jon Reid of the TPA says the union will help her fight her dismissal.) Policing once gave Zarabi-Majd’s life purpose; it was both what she did and who she was. Now, trying to reform the police force, to save it from itself, has given her a different purpose, a different existence.
Almost every day, she hears from other female officers who have endured the same mistreatment that she did. Some call her in great distress, others to check in and offer words of kindness or encouragement. Zarabi-Majd tries to help in any way she can. After all these years, so little has changed. The brutal reality is that, even if Zarabi-Majd is eventually silenced, there will always be more women to take her place.