When she looks back upon those moments now, Heli Kijanen can’t fathom that she ever was that sad or desperate. That the agony she was in could have reached such heights, that she considered ending it all.
She cries when she thinks about what might have been had it not been for her two daughters waiting for her at home. Two daughters who likely saved their mother’s life.
“At the end of some of my shifts I would go into the locker room and hold my service revolver to my head,” Ms. Kijanen recalled the other day. “I wondered if I should just do it, if I could make the strongest statement possible about what they were doing to me if I just killed myself. Or would they just say I was crazy?
“But every time I considered it I thought of my two beautiful girls at home. I couldn’t leave them regardless of how much pain I was in at the time.”
The former RCMP constable contends the pain was caused by unrelenting harassment from several male colleagues at the Saskatchewan detachment in which she was stationed for two years. Harassment that led her to leave the force earlier this year and eventually spearhead what is shaping up to be a class-action lawsuit against the Mounties.
Ms. Kijanen, 43, is among a number of former and current Mounties now speaking out about what they say is rampant and deeply entrenched harassment throughout the force. She says that a large number of current and former officers have contacted her lawyer about joining the class action suit she initiated.
“We’re talking hundreds now who have expressed an interest in finding out more about what we’re doing,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Kijanen’s own story begins on March 23, 2009, when she was posted to a small detachment in Saskatchewan. For 18 months everything was fine. She excelled at her job, received good performance reviews and got along well with people in the community – particularly those known to police.
“I just treated them with respect,” she says. “When we put them in jail I made sure they had blankets and some food. Sometimes when we had to arrest them they’d hold out their wrists for me because they liked me. Some of my fellow officers hated that. I believe that was the beginning of the end for me.”
One day she was asked to attend a meeting of three supervisors during which she was grilled for missing the deadline for an online course she was taking. It was an excuse, she says, to go after her for all sorts of things. They accused her of posting pictures of herself on Facebook – which she says wasn’t true but not against company policy even if it was. They said she was late every day for a course she attended in Edmonton. She had been seven minutes late the first of four days and not once after.
“I said that wasn’t true,” she says. “One of the guys says, ‘My buddy was there and said you were always late and I’m believing him on this one.’ This kind of bullying became the norm. They made me sign forms in which I was agreeing with their version of things that weren’t true.
“I lost my mind for a while.”
Soon, she was routinely being sent out on patrol without a partner. Once she responded to a call of a stalled semi-trailer on the highway. She asked for some help. Two officers on patrol came by, dropped off a couple of pylons, and took off. As she tried to manage the situation on her own in poor conditions she was nearly hit by a car.
She stopped eating. A single mother, she would go home after her shifts and cry in front of her children. She began seeing a psychologist who recommended she take a medical leave and visit her family in Thunder Bay, Ont. The first day there, a supervisor phoned to say she should not have left the community and ordered her to return immediately.
“Another supervisor called me in and said my sick leave was stalling a transfer he had requested,” she recalled. “He was screaming at me. Fed up, I got up to leave and he ordered me to sit down.”
It was around this time that Ms. Kijanen contemplated taking her own life.
When she returned to work after a two-week medical leave, she was ordered to “shadow” other officers as if she was a fresh recruit – a move she says was intended to degrade and humiliate her. An e-mail went out in the detachment that said if Ms. Kijanen approached anyone with a question they were not to answer her. One person was designated to answer her questions.
Finally, on a January day earlier this year she decided she couldn’t take it any more and resigned. She returned home to Thunder Bay and now works for the Ontario Provincial Police – an organization she says is light years ahead of the RCMP in terms of workplace environment.
“I’m so much happier now,” she says. “I’m not 100 per cent. I still cry a lot. They tore me down pretty good so I’m still building myself back up. Sadly, my story isn’t unique.
“But I’m glad I’m around to tell it. People need to know about the culture that exists in that organization.”