Mounted chauvinist police? Female Canadian officers file Mounties sex harassment suit

Police officer checks the area around a bullet hole following an overnight shooting in a restaurant in Vancouver.(Reuters/Andy Clark)
Nearly 400 female employees of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are asking a British Columbia judge to be allowed to join a class action lawsuit against the federal police force over sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

The original lawsuit was filed by veteran RCMP officer Janet Merlo. Her case has been stuck in various courts for three years.

“My name is on there, but there's 400 ladies standing behind … from nine provinces and all the territories,” Merlo told CBC News. “It speaks to a problem that's systemic and that's nationwide.”

David Klein, the lawyer representing the 363 women, said that the Mounties’ work environment is toxic for women.

“Day after day, week after week, year after year, they were subjected to degradation, humiliation, and demoralizing comments and behavior. Comments and behavior that were not adequately addressed by management,” Klein told journalists outside the British Columbia Supreme Court on Monday.

Klein said that the harassment left some women incapable of working and left many with serious psychological problems.

The class action suit is being seen as a way to shine a light on a broader problem within the RCMP, the lawyer said.

“If you were to focus on these isolated incidents, of practical jokes, inappropriate comments, of sexualized gestures, you might not see the entire picture, but what we have here is a broad, serious, systemic problem,” he said.

“This is conduct that occurs over months or years, by multiple perpetrators, that’s ignored by management at multiple locations,” Klein noted, adding that two-thirds of the women are still employed by the RCMP.

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The class action application hearing began on Monday and will last five days, but the decisions could not be made for the next several months.

So far there has been no price tag attached to the lawsuit, but it could be “many millions of dollars,” according to Klein.

Merlo came forward with her allegations about discrimination she experienced from her male colleagues in 2012. She added that her supervisors got angry when in 1992 she told them she was pregnant.

"What the hell am I supposed to do with you now? ...You had better get your priorities straight. You are either going to have a career in the RCMP, or you are going to pop out kids your whole life," her boss allegedly yelled at her.

"I have a suggestion for you: next time, keep your f***ing legs closed,” he added.

Merlo’s accusations focus on two of her former senior officers. “On one occasion the sergeant brandished a dildo that had been seized as evidence in a criminal investigation and yelled across the Nanaimo detachment office words to the effect: ‘Merlo, what the hell happened? This thing was brand new yesterday. Now it’s almost worn out. Did you take it home last night?” according to her statement of claim.

In another instance, she described a supervisor corporal positioning “an inflatable naked doll next to his desk at the detachment while on duty … On more than one occasion, the supervising corporal invited Ms. Merlo to stand next to the doll.”

“I think it’s time the organization changed, changed for everybody,” Merlo told reporters. “It’s gone on far too long and there’s been too many lives destroyed, and still being destroyed because there’s a lot of members who are still active. So that tells me that not a lot’s being done to make it right.”

In response to the women’s complaint, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson promised to fight the "culture of harassment."

The Canadian government “takes the issue of discrimination and sexual harassment very seriously,” a spokesperson for Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney said in a statement.

“All RCMP members and employees should feel safe and respected amongst their colleagues and superiors, and Canadians have the right to expect professional and exemplary conduct from their national police service.”