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RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson speaks during a news conference in in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. Paulson has apologized to hundreds of current and former female officers and employees for alleged incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The head of the RCMP delivered an emotional apology for one of the most painful periods in the national police force's history: 42 years in which female members were routinely harassed, taunted and bullied by colleagues and superiors.

Commissioner Bob Paulson said his organization failed to adequately welcome the thousands of women who joined the RCMP after 1974, which led to the historic mea culpa and $100-million settlement that put an end to two class-action lawsuits.

"To all the women who have been impacted by the force's failure to have protected your experience at work, and on behalf of every leader, supervisor or manager, every commissioner: I stand humbly before you today and solemnly offer our sincere apology," Commissioner Paulson said at a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday.

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With a quiver in his voice, the top Mountie looked directly at two retired officers who spearheaded class-action lawsuits against the RCMP in British Columbia and Ontario, Janet Merlo and Linda Davidson. All three had tears in their eyes.

"You came to the RCMP wanting to personally contribute to your community and we failed you. We hurt you. For that, I am truly sorry," said Commissioner Paulson, who has been with the RCMP since 1986.

Like hundreds of other current and former RCMP officers, Ms. Merlo has laid out complaints of sexual harassment and taunts that transformed her dream job into a nightmare. She quit in 2010, taking a medical discharge as a result of physical and emotional problems associated with years of harassment, facing a broken marriage and financial ruin.

"It's a good day for the RCMP," she said after listening to Commissioner Paulson's apology. "This is the beginning of a new era, hopefully a better era."

As part of the settlement, the federal government has created an "independent claims process" that applies to all women who "experienced gender and sexual orientation-based discrimination, bullying and harassment in the RCMP."

The claims will be evaluated by retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache, who will review all cases under a confidential and independent process. The government has already set aside $100-million to cover the claims of about 1,000 women who are expected to come forward, although there is no cap on the final amount to be paid out.

Mr. Bastarache will determine the compensation based on the acts that were endured, as well as the emotional and physical toll. The maximum payout under the settlement will be $220,000.

The lawyers involved in the class-action lawsuits will collect 15 per cent of the amounts received by the complainants, in addition to a separate payment from the RCMP.

Ms. Davidson, who retired with the rank of inspector, said she would vomit on the way to work or feel unable to perform simple tasks because of the harassment. She said the number of victims is likely much greater than the government's estimate, based on the response to her class-action lawsuit.

Still, she said only a minority of her male colleagues were engaged in abusive behaviour, and that the real problem was a long-standing lack of training on gender issues in the RCMP.

"I blame government for failing to fund the RCMP properly," Ms. Davidson told reporters. "What's the first thing that is cut? Training."

As part of the settlement, the RCMP has agreed to a number of initiatives, including improved training of current members and new recruits, as well as striving to increase the number of women in its ranks.

Commissioner Paulson insisted all women who participate in the confidential settlement process can also continue to file complaints against colleagues or superiors who are still working for the RCMP.

"If complainants come forward, you can rest assured the fist of God will descend upon the [transgressors]," he said, explaining the RCMP's disciplinary system has been improved in recent years.

The issue of sexual harassment has followed Commissioner Paulson at every turn since his appointment to lead the force in 2011, but he said efforts to tackle the issue are starting to bear fruit.

"The harassment problem in the RCMP was enabled by an organizational culture that developed over time in isolation from the values of the communities we serve," Commissioner Paulson said. "Effective accountability and leadership have been instrumental in bringing us back onside with modernity."

Ms. Merlo, who spent nearly 20 years with the RCMP in British Columbia, said the class-action lawsuit was never about money. The settlement, she said, allows her to see the force in a new way.

"Yesterday, I probably never would have recommended [to my 18-year-old daughter] to join the RCMP. Today, if she wanted to, I think I'd feel comfortable," Ms. Merlo said. "That's what it was about."