RCMP Constable Janet Merlo says she felt compelled to respond when a supervising officer made a sexist remark to her in the company of a high-ranking official from the force.
"You know, if I were to make a complaint, I could probably retire on just what you say to me alone," she said.
"What was that?" her boss replied. "Did you say you want to retire on me? Does that mean you like it on top?"
It was at this point that the senior RCMP officer in the room interjected.
"If you're going to talk to her like that, do it somewhere else," he said to the male officer. "I don't want to be a witness to stuff like that."
It was at that moment that Janet Merlo realized just how little hope there was for women in the force who, like her, were dealing with harassment of various forms on a near daily basis. In Ms. Merlo's case, she says that would include everything from sex toys left in her desk drawer to a scolding for getting pregnant that came with the advice to "keep your ... legs closed" the next time she considered the idea.
Today, after years of suffering in silence, the former RCMP constable is lending her voice to a growing chorus of current and former Mounties speaking out about what they say is a systemic problem that senior officials in the organization have ignored for decades.
Allegations of harassment are quickly developing into one of the biggest scandals to rock the force in its 91-year history and the No. 1 issue facing its new commissioner, Bob Paulson. The commissioner has inherited a badly demoralized institution whose reputation has been hammered in recent years by a string of controversies, the most recent touched off when former RCMP spokeswoman Catherine Galliford went public last month with sexual harassment allegations.
Mr. Paulson has promised a thorough investigation of all harassment charges now being levelled against the Mounties.
Next week, a group of former RCMP officers being represented by Thunder Bay lawyer Alexander Zaitzeff is expected to announce that it will launch a class action lawsuit against the RCMP related to harassment in the force. The group will also include male officers.
One of those spearheading the initiative is former RCMP member Heli Kijanen, also of Thunder Bay, who says she quit the force earlier this year because she had been forced to deal with incessant harassment problems. The group has a Facebook site and is expecting many more current and former members of the Mounties to join the suit.
Originally from Newfoundland, Ms. Merlo, now 43, joined the force in 1991 and was immediately dispatched to B.C., where she worked for almost 20 years. She quit in 2010, taking a medical discharge as a result of physical and emotional problems she says are associated with years of enduring harassment on the job. Today, she speaks haltingly about a matter that she says led to the demise of her 18-year marriage and left her in dismal financial shape.
She became overwhelmed with emotion several times discussing her ordeal in an almost three-hour interview. She says she sees a counsellor once a week for medical conditions that include depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It got so bad when I was working there that I would get physically sick at the thought of going into work," Ms. Merlo said. "I sometimes would get my husband to call in sick for me. I couldn't bear the idea of going into that place."
In 2007, she hired Calgary lawyer Angela Byrne to commence legal action against the force. Eventually she had to abandon the idea because she did not have the money to continue her fight. The Mounties initiated an internal review into her allegations, which were dismissed.
"The problem with these things is it's often our word against someone else's," Ms. Merlo explained. "There are no recordings of banter in the office or video of things that go on. And other men who may witness this stuff don't want to say anything for fear of being labelled rats.
"How do you fight this stuff? You're fighting an old boys club and culture that has existed for years. It's brutal for women. Absolutely brutal."
Over the course of her career serving in British Columbia, here are some of the incidents Ms. Merlo says happened to her:
- a supervisor left a vacuum cleaner part on her desk and later asked her if she'd seen it. At that point she hadn't and asked what it was: "It's long and black and something you can take home and have fun with on your days off."
- When she told a commanding officer she was pregnant, he responded furiously: "What am I supposed to do with you now?" Ms. Merlo went home and broke down.
- While male officers were regularly allowed take three hours off a night shift to play recreational hockey, she and another female officer were denied a request to attend a one-hour aerobics class.
- She was often accused of "PMSing" or "being on the rag."
- On one occasion, as she was getting ready to attend a call about a man sexually assaulting his daughter, she had a message to phone a superior with whom she was supposed to take the call. "Tony's pizza," he answered. "What kind of pizza do you want?" "Pepperoni," Constable Merlo replied. "I don't have pepperoni," her supervisor said, "but I do have a big Italian sausage I'd like to give you."
- When officers received a memo about upcoming training courses for members, a sheet of paper was attached to the communication given to female officers in the detachment. It was titled Training Courses Now Available for Women. It included 34 course suggestions with titles such as: Silence, the Final Frontier, Where No Woman has Gone Before; PMS: Your Problem … Not His; Communication Skills 1: Tears – The Last Resort Not the First.
Sick and bereft of the will to work any longer in an environment often hostile to women, Ms. Merlo turned in her badge last year. She left with a medical pension that pays far less than she would have received had she retired as she had expected to do, 15 years from now.
She recently opened a daycare in her home to help pay bills. She is afraid to leave her house in case she runs into male officers with whom she has worked.
"I guess I'm afraid of retribution because they know I've complained about their behaviour," she says. "A lot of us women who are going public or considering it are scared to death about what might happen to us.
"But we have to speak up, if not for us then for the women who come after us. Maybe by saying something, we can make life better for them."