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gary mason

The Mounties want you to believe they take sexual harassment allegations seriously. But when you listen to Janet Merlo's story, the RCMP's oft-repeated declaration rings hollow.

In September, 2007, Constable Merlo wrote to then-RCMP commissioner William Elliott concerning plans under way to transfer her out of the B.C. detachment in which she was serving. In the note, she talked about a run-in she had with a supervisor because "I did not think his sexual advances were funny."

She didn't think the sex toys he was leaving on her desk were funny either.

"Yet I put up and shut up with the sexual harassment for the sake of the RCMP, but kept all the notes, dates and times in case the problem escalated," she wrote to the commissioner. "That year, my assessment reflected his feeling about me not accepting his jokes and presents.

"How silly I was not to launch one of the biggest sexual harassment lawsuits the RCMP has ever seen in this province."

Provocative allegations. Certainly ones you would think might have prompted the recipient to launch an immediate investigation. At the very least, a diligent and sensitive CEO would have quickly assured his employee that he was taking her claims seriously and that someone would be in touch to discuss them further.

Ms. Merlo waited for a reply. And waited. Until one day it finally arrived – more than two years later.

In November, 2009, she received a letter from deputy commissioner Peter Martin, writing on behalf of his boss. It began by thanking Ms. Merlo for "your correspondence of Aug. 19, 2007," and referenced her allegations of harassment.

"As you are aware the RCMP does not take these allegations lightly and, in fact, has an obligation to provide a harassment free environment for all of our employees," he wrote.

Janet Merlo didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

"I couldn't believe it," said Ms. Merlo, who retired from the force last year. "I couldn't believe the gall of them writing back to me more than two years after the fact. And then saying they took my claims seriously. As far as I'm concerned, that told me everything you need to know about how serious the RCMP takes harassment on the job and what kind of priority it is."

Two years to respond to an officer's complaint of harassment? That is appalling. And perhaps tells us everything we need to know about why and how this is ugly workplace phenomenon has apparently been allowed to thrive for decades in the force. There has been no leadership on the issue, either in Ottawa or at the detachment level. And now, the force's harassment problem is a stain that appears to be spreading.

On Saturday, Ms. Merlo went public in The Globe and Mail about harassment she says she suffered throughout most of her 20-year career. The allegations included everything from demeaning comments about "being on the rag and PMSing" to being upbraided for getting pregnant. They followed similarly explosive claims by high-profile RCMP spokeswoman Catherine Galliford, who last month went public with a litany of harassment horror stories.

Both women say they have developed serious medical conditions that can be linked to years of harassment abuse.

A published report on Monday said lawyers for Surrey RCMP officer Elisabeth Couture have filed a civil claim against three of her fellow Mountie (as well as the B.C. attorney-general and solicitor-general's departments) alleging constant harassment in a "climate of fear."

Meantime, lawyers representing a group of Mounties, both active and retired, are expected to hold a news conference this week to announce that a plan for a class action suit against the RCMP related to harassment claims. Since Ms. Merlo's story appeared in The Globe, several more members have contacted the lawyers to inquire about joining the action.

Several officers have also contacted me to suggest this matter runs far deeper than anyone realizes. They say the issue isn't just that RCMP brass in Ottawa doesn't understand how entrenched the problem is throughout the organization, but also the fact that management at the local level routinely turns a blind eye to harassment as it's occurring.

In other words, you can have all the staff workshops on the issue that you want, but unless detachment supervisors deal with incidents in a forceful and unequivocal manner, it won't matter.

How new RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson deals with this emerging crisis will be telling. A passive course of action will signal that it's business as usual in the RCMP. A bolder, more courageous response could go a long way toward restoring the force's terribly tarnished image.