For Sherry Benson-Podolchuk, the harassment began soon after she arrived at her first RCMP posting in Tisdale, Sask.
It was 1990 and she was 27, the only woman stationed in the Prairie community. She would soon become the victim of a steady stream of sexually laced comments from colleagues, and she was given nicknames that had sexual connotations.
One day, she went into the bathroom and closed the door of her stall. It fell on top of her and split open her head. Some of her fellow officers had thought it would be funny if they removed the screws that kept the door secure. On another occasion, she opened her locker to discover a dead prairie chicken dripping blood all over her belongings.
And on it went throughout much of her career. When she permanently injured her shoulder during a shotgun training exercise in 1994, the force started a medical discharge process. Even though the Mounties accommodated officers who suffered debilitating injuries playing recreational hockey, they weren’t prepared to make room for a woman who’d seriously hurt herself on the job.
In 2005, Ms. Benson-Podolchuk wrote to then-RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli about her harassment issues and the efforts to push her out of the force. She received no reply. She filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and followed it up with a lawsuit, claiming the Mounties had failed to accommodate her job-related injury and provide a harassment-free environment. The RCMP settled out of court in 2009. Ms. Benson-Podolchuk officially called it quits a year later.
Last year, she published a revised edition of a book she wrote in 2007 about her experiences. Women Not Wanted initially received little attention but is now particularly apt in light of the latest harassment controversy that has engulfed the force.
Sexual harassment has been a problem in the RCMP for decades. While the subject has occasionally created headlines, little seems to have been done inside the organization to eradicate this ugly workplace phenomenon. Lawyers representing a growing number of officers are readying a harassment-related class-action lawsuit against the Mounties. And a number of female members, past and present, have recently spoken out about their ordeals.
Ms. Benson-Podolchuk sympathizes with anyone experiencing what she went through. “I’m on the other side of despair now and I know how hard it was to get here,” she says. “The fact is, the organization is terribly broken. Women feel isolated.
“I have two letters from RCMP headquarters – one in 1992 and another in 2009, both apologizing for the harassment I suffered and saying how the Mounties don’t tolerate it. Did anything change over that time? No, absolutely nothing. It’s still a terrible work environment for most females.”
Women who break gender norms are the most likely to be harassed. That’s why it’s been so rampant in paramilitary organizations such as the police. Female firefighters have had a tough time, too. Guys often don’t like it when women gain entry into their boys-only club. When it happens, the reaction can be swift and brutal – as many female RCMP officers have learned.
“The term sexual harassment is a bit of a misnomer because of the word sexual,” says Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto. “It really should be called sex-based harassment because the vast majority of it takes on an overtly hostile nature where it’s really about degrading and humiliating the employee based on sex.” That can entail talking about a woman’s body or sexually explicit things that make her feel uncomfortable, says Dr. Berdahl. It all takes place in the historical context of male sexual dominance over women.
Or to put it another way: The RCMP has a bullying problem.
“Even though I’m mostly recovered, I still have nightmares about my experience,” says Ms. Benson-Podolchuk. “It’s simply a devastating thing to go through. The fact it’s still so rampant in the RCMP is really quite …” Her voice trails off. I believe the word she is looking for is “shameful.”