“To all the women who have been impacted by the forces’ failure to protect your experience at work, and on the behalf of every leader […], I stand humbly before you today and solemnly offer our sincere apology.”
Such were the words of the RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson, this Thursday, during a press conference in Ottawa. He was looking at ex-officers Janet Merlo and Linda Davidson, the two main plaintiffs of a class-action lawsuit for gender-based harassment and discrimination. Also present were the Justice Bastarache, as well as Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk.
They were together to announce the “historic” settlement of the lawsuit that now involves 500 women, who are current or former employees of the national police force. Four years after the lawsuit was filed, the RCMP apologizes, promises tens of millions in compensation for the victims and commits to improving the situation.
“This is a great day for myself, women in the RCMP and women in Canada… I have total fate that this is the beginning of a new era, hopefully a better era” said Merlo.
The ex-Mountie choked back tears as she talked about the dedication of the women who stepped forward: “they all love the RCMP, they love their jobs. They just want it to be a better place to work; a place for their daughters to work.”
Davidson expressed similar hope, before promising that she will “continue to watch developments and continue to right the wrongs” in the RCMP.
The settlement was accepted by all parties but has yet to be approved by the court. It entails three main aspects: an official apology from the RCMP, a compensation scheme for the victims and measures to improve the situation.
Confidential and independent process
Six different levels of compensation have been set, based on the severity of the offence and on the impact of said offence on the claimant. The highest compensation possible is $220 000. Based on the 500 victims that are part of the initial law suit, the RCMP has planned a budget of $100 million, taking into account that the number of claimants could reach 1 000. The commissioner called the estimates “a ballpark” and insisted that it wasn’t a cap on the spending.
Justice Bastarache took great care of insuring, in both official languages, that the compensation process will be “absolutely confidential.” The RCMP will transfer the compensation money to an account only Bastarache manages, and thus will be kept in the dark about the details of the claims and the identity of the claimants. Women who have suffered bullying, harassment and discrimination can come forward without fearing retaliation from colleagues and community.
The confidentiality, necessary as it is, also means that the identity of the perpetrators will be just as secret as the identity of the victims.
This raises obvious concerns about harassers not only going unpunished, but being allowed to continue working with the RCMP.
The commissioner, visibly uncomfortable at the mention of such concerns, assured that victims were welcome to address the RCMP or the police directly if they wanted the guilty party sanctioned. “Be assured that the fist of God will descend upon [the perpetrators],” he promised.
“We don’t think women should be in the force, and especially not French-speaking ones.”
That’s how Joanne Mayer was greeted by her sergeant when she started working for the RCMP in Gibson, B.C.
In Nanaimo, B.C, when Merlo told her supervisor she was pregnant, he started yelling at her that next time, she “should keep [her] fucking legs closed.”
Dildos left on their desks, constant crude remarks and sexual propositions, superiors groping their breasts, less time off than their male coworkers and even less assistance in dangerous situations are all part of what some female RCMP agents described as part and parcel of their daily life.
After retiring prematurely, Merlo spoke out about the gender-based discrimination, bullying and harassment that she endured during her 20 years of career in the national police force. In 2012, she wrote a book titled No One to Tell: Breaking My Silence on Life in the RCMP and filed a civil claim.
500 then came forward with similar stories. This number is expected to double.
Commissioner Paulson pronounced the words “cultural transformation” as many times as he could fit into one press conference. He admitted that it was more than time to bring the RCMP into the modern days and thanked the plaintiffs multiple times for playing their part in this progress. The way that complaints and sexual harassment are processed in the RCMP is under review.
“You can now take some comfort in the knowledge that you have made a difference” he said to Merlo and Davidson. “The RCMP will never be the same.”