VANCOUVER - A former WestJet flight attendant who lost her job after she reported being allegedly sexually assaulted by a pilot says she's been shocked by the positive response she's received since sharing her story, despite initial fears of a public backlash.
Mandalena Lewis, 30, said she decided to go public with her story in hopes of inspiring other woman to break their silence, and that she hopes the overwhelming support she's received so far suggests a cultural shift that will make it easier for victims to report sex crimes.
"The support has been amazing. I'm pretty shocked, in a good way," Lewis said in an interview. "It's wonderful. It means that things are changing, things are changing and the times are changing."
She said she was fearful of how the public and media would react, in part after witnessing the treatment of women involved in other sexual-assault cases, singling out the recently concluded trial of former CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, who has pleaded not guilty to four counts of sexual assault and a choking charge. A judge in Toronto is scheduled to give his verdict in the case on March 24.
Lewis launched a lawsuit against WestJet earlier this month, accusing the Calgary-based airline of failing to respond adequately to an alleged incident during a stopover in Hawaii six years ago.
The airline hasn't filed a statement of defence but said it intends to do so. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky posted a statement online last week saying two employees have been taken out of active flying duty while the company reviews its investigations into the complaints.
"Every company has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all its employees, and this is a responsibility we take most seriously at WestJet," Saretsky wrote.
"As a husband, father of a daughter and brother to a sister I understand how important it is to get this right, no matter the role or gender of the complainant."
Documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court allege an unnamed WestJet pilot invited Lewis back to his hotel room for a drink where he eventually pulled her onto his bed and began kissing and groping her.
Lewis said she reported the incident to WestJet and to police, and that the airline instructed her to keep quiet out of respect for the pilot's privacy, telling her there was nothing it could do.
The tipping point came five years later during a late-night phone call from a colleague Lewis had never met before. The colleague told her she had made a sexual assault complaint about the same pilot in 2008, Lewis said.
"It was the next level of realizing what gross negligence was really going on," she said, adding that she was shocked and infuriated.
"That's when I realized that ... this is a much deeper problem that the company just doesn't want to address, and I don't know why."
Lewis said she requested her employee file from WestJet soon afterwards in order to follow up on what action the company had taken in response to her complaint.
In December 2015, she went on short-term disability for post-traumatic stress disorder and was fired in early January for "insubordination" after sending a fifth follow-up email, which contained an obscenity, asking about her employee file.
"Enough is enough," she said in the interview. "This is WestJet, you know? This is Canada's sweetheart airline. We should know better. This company should know better."
Lewis said she filed a complaint with police in 2010. Prosecutors in Hawaii have refused to discuss the case.