Nearly 400 female RCMP officers and civilian employees from across Canada are asking a B.C judge to certify a class action lawsuit filed by Const. Janet Merlo over sexual harassment and gender discrimination at a hearing Monday.
"My name is on there, but there's 400 ladies standing behind … from nine provinces and all the territories," said Merlo, who is so far the only named plaintiff in a case that has been making its way through the courts for three years.
"It speaks to a problem that's systemic and that's nationwide," Merlo said.
She filed the lawsuit after a CBC News investigation into sexual harassment of female Mounties, including former spokesperson Cpl. Catherine Galliford, prompted dozens more to speak publicly.
"It is absolutely a group effort that did start way back when Catherine first spoke to [CBC]," said Merlo, who helped start a support group on Facebook after hearing Galliford and others share allegations of sexual assault and abuse on the job.
One of the Facebook group members in Ontario contacted a lawyer and the class action case slowly grew, with hundreds now hoping the court will decide their allegations are similar enough to proceed as one case.
Sexual, physical, verbal assaults alleged
"They're gonna hear from people who had one or two incidents that really upset them, to women who were physically assaulted and sexually assaulted during the course of their career," Merlo said.
David Klein, the lawyer representing the women, said some clients have been left unable to work, with serious psychological injuries. A third of the women are still on the job.
So far, 363 women have officially joined the case with several more waiting for the outcome of this week's hearing, Klein said.
"If you were to focus on these isolated incidents, of practical jokes, inappropriate comments, of sexualized gestures, you might not see the entire picture, but what we have here is a broad, serious, systemic problem," he said.
- Unwanted sexual touching.
- Physical assault.
- Sexist comments.
- Gender discrimination.
Merlo said she had a bad experience when she told her supervisor in Nanaimo, B.C., that she required a maternity leave.
"He just started yelling and screaming at me," she recalled.
"If I wanted a career in the RCMP, I'd have to decide on that or I could pop out kids my whole life ... he told me that next time I should keep my f---ing legs closed."
Merlo said she waited until her supervisor retired to have another child.
Sex toys in detachment
In an affidavit, Merlo alleges another boss made "overtly sexual comments to me, offering to rub my breast ... offering to give me his 'big Italian salami' and asking if 'I liked it on top?'"
She said a sergeant kept a naked blow-up doll in his office, and at one point a dildo was left on her files, followed by a vacuum attachment.
"My boss told me he'd left me a present that was long and black and thick and I could take it home on days off and have fun with it," she said.
Merlo wrote a book titled No One to Tell: Breaking My Silence on Life in the RCMP sharing her frustration that her complaints at the time went nowhere.
'It's a misogynistic organization'
CBC News has spoken to dozens of female RCMP officers and civilians who allege they were punished for complaining.
"They just had no use for women. It's a misogynistic organization that found it inconvenient to have women and mothers," said Yvonne Walsh, a retired corporal who lives in St. John's.
Walsh said grievances and even letters to the RCMP commissioner at the time were ignored.
She claims her boss retaliated by refusing to promote her or accommodate her request to be with her child during a medical crisis.
'Threatened and bullied'
Nancy Arias, a former publice servant in Ottawa, alleges some RCMP managers were abusive bullies.
"The inspector would yell and scream at me and leave me in tears" said the woman who was involved in a prolonged dispute with a co-worker.
Arias said RCMP management failed to deal with a difficult employee who targeted her.
"I was threatened, I was bullied," said Arias, who now works as a dishwasher.
She said she was too late to take her complaint to the Human Rights tribunal, but hopes the class action will proceed.
RCMP says force has changed
Last year, the RCMP revamped its complaint process and says bad behavior is now dealt with swiftly under its action plan to curb harassment.
The RCMP wouldn't comment on the class action case, but said there are far fewer harassment complaints now thanks to the women who came forward.
"Those experiences that have been shared by those women and other individuals have been a significant component of how we've understood what we need to do differently in the organization to change," said Chief Supt. Angela Workman-Stark, who is overseeing the RCMP's gender and respect initiative.
Commissioner Bob Paulson has committed to changing what he has called a "culture of harassment."
While none of the allegations have been proven in court, Klein is asking the federal government, the defendant in the case, to compensate his clients.
"It can have a debilitating effect on these women. We've seen depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse, broken relationships and shattered careers," he said.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney wouldn't comment on the case, but his spokesman Jeremy Laurin said in a statement, "All RCMP members and employees should feel safe and respected."
Several potential plaintiffs are expected to attend Monday's hearing, scheduled to run for five days.
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