The settlement of two class-action lawsuits against the RCMP and the apology by the force’s commanding officer bring to a close a difficult chapter for the national police. How the next chapter turns out depends on fundamental shifts in attitudes and actions throughout the force.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson apologized profusely Thursday to hundreds of current and former female officers and employees who were subjected to bullying, discrimination and harassment, some of which date back to 1974. He made the apology as he announced the settlement of two class-action lawsuits stemming from those incidents.
Paulson said the federal government has set aside $100 million for payouts.
The apology and the settlement are necessary and welcome. Plaintiffs in the lawsuits will be spared the agony of reliving the abuse they endured from colleagues and superior officers. It’s validation for those who were ignored or scorned for standing up against abuses in the workplace.
Those abuses were not trivial. One of those who launched the lawsuits was former RCMP officer Janet Merlo, who says that during her 19-year career in Nanaimo, she endured name-calling, sexist pranks and requests for sexual favours. When she became pregnant with her first child, she was berated by a senior manager.
“He yelled and screamed and told me I needed to get my priorities straight, that I was either going to have a career in the RCMP or I was going to pop out kids my whole life,” she told the Canadian Press in May.
Krista Carle of Victoria spent most of her 20-year career as a Mountie in Alberta, where she said she endured sexual harassment that included male officers putting pornography in her desk, telling sexual jokes and inappropriately touching her. When she transferred to Nanaimo, she said, she changed her last name for fear that word would spread that she moved because of sexual harassment.
Her experiences left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, and she applied for medical discharge in 2009.
In 2013, Carle told the Times Colonist that those who harassed her were never disciplined and were still with the RCMP. Harassment complaints lodged within the force often went unresolved, she said.
“The impact this has had on those who have experienced this shameful conduct cannot — must not — be solely understood as an adverse workplace condition for which they must be compensated,” Paulson said Thursday.
“For many of our women, this harassment has hurt them mentally and physically. It has destroyed relationships and marriages, and even whole families have suffered as a result. Their very lives have been affected.”
An apology and compensation are not enough. If trust and confidence in the RCMP are to be restored, those who believe such abuse is acceptable must be weeded out. That includes not only those who instigated the abuse, but senior officers who brushed aside complaints or further persecuted the victims, which happened in some cases.
How can the public expect fair and honourable treatment at the hands of police officers who treat their own colleagues so shabbily?
It’s a cloud that hangs over the entire force, and is unfair to the majority of RCMP officers across the country who do an excellent job.
This week’s events were a major step forward for the RCMP, but should not be regarded as the end of the journey. The momentum for positive change must be continued if the force is to live up to its motto — “maintiens le droit,” which is often translated as “defending the law,” but which literally means “maintain the right.”
Both shades of meaning apply in this issue.
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