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RCMP’s apology for harassment is merely a first step toward a solution

There was the day Janet Merlo's RCMP supervisor asked if she'd seen the little gift he'd left on her desk. She hadn't.

"It's long and black and something you can take home and have fun with on your days off," he told her, smiling. It was a piece of vacuum cleaner hose.

Another time, when she told a commanding officer she was pregnant, he became furious. "What am I supposed to do with you now?" he raged. "Next time keep your fucking legs closed."

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When officers at Ms. Merlo's detachment in Nanaimo, B.C., received a memo about coming training courses for members, there was a sheet attached intended only for women. Titled: Training Courses Now Available for Women, it included 34 options with names such as: Silence, the final frontier, where no woman has gone before; PMS, your problem, not his; Communications Skills 1: Tears – the last resort not the first.

When Ms. Merlo first broke her silence to me five years ago about the campaign of harassment she endured in her nearly two-decades-long service in the force, she was, by her own admission, an emotional basket case. Years of abuse at the hands of the men with whom she worked had devastated her.

She suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She couldn't talk about the painful, humiliating journey she endured without breaking down and sobbing. It had taken all the power she had left to go public with her story. Her decision to speak out, however, had a liberating effect on others.

Soon, dozens of female officers began sharing their tales of mistreatment. What became clear was Janet Merlo's revelations (and certainly Corporal Catherine Galliford's as well) exposed a systemic problem within the Mounties that had been ignored for decades. A class-action lawsuit was launched, with Ms. Merlo named as the primary complainant. It was a legal action eventually joined by nearly 500 past and current female RCMP members and civilians and went on to include allegations of rape, sexist comments, gender discrimination, harassment, bullying and other offences.

On Thursday, the RCMP formally apologized to Ms. Merlo and the hundreds of others like her who endured years of unspeakable treatment at the hands of male colleagues. The Mounties are expected to pay out tens of millions of dollars in compensation under the terms of the settlement. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson issued a public apology to the women.

This, of course, is a welcome development. Forcing these women to recount their painful memories in a courtroom and withstand the withering cross-examination that would follow would have been distasteful. It would also have been highly embarrassing to the RCMP – a fact, I'm sure, that was not lost on Mr. Paulson.

The public rebuke a trial would have incited undoubtedly played a role in the Mounties' decision to resolve this matter. So it is not as noble as it might appear. And while these women will be financially compensated for the wrongs they suffered, it will never make up for the years they lost to behaviour that is as reprehensible as you will find.

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No amount of money will ever reimburse Janet Merlo for the 18-year marriage she lost because of the toll sexual harassment at work took on it. No amount of money will give her back those mornings she spent hunched over a toilet, throwing up because of the anxiety she felt about having to go into work. No amount of money will give her back the years she spent on stress leave in a depressive fog, unable to leave her house, quietly crying in the darkness every day.

So no, this isn't entirely a good news story.

In fact, it is certainly the truth that many of the men who abused Ms. Merlo and others, or who sat back and condoned the activity by saying nothing, are still in the force today. And it defies belief that they have all been cured of their sexist, demeaning nature.

Perhaps the RCMP isn't quite the old boys' club it once was, but an old boys' mentality still exists in many quarters of it. It will take years for it to be routed out, if it ever is. Mr. Paulson has vowed to deal with gender harassment like no one before him. For that to occur, examples will have to be made of offending male members, including being dismissed from the force.

Only when all female officers and civilians within the Mounties are treated equally and with common respect will Janet Merlo, and hundreds of others like her, achieve the victory they are truly seeking.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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