Deadline for women to opt out of RCMP sex harassment settlement is today

Today is the deadline for female Mounties to decide if they want to opt out of a historic sexual harassment class-action lawsuit. Any woman who has worked for the RCMP is eligible to file a claim under a negotiated settlement to compensate for on-the-job harassment and abuse.

Court expected to formally approve negotiated settlement by end of May

RCMP Const. Agata Purcell works with children in B.C. in 2010. She is among thousands of women taking part in a historic sexual harassment class action lawsuit. (Mike Wakefield/North Shore News)

Today is the deadline for female Mounties to decide if they want to opt out of a historic sexual harassment class action lawsuit.

Any woman who has worked as a public servant, civilian or regular member of the RCMP is eligible to file a claim under the negotiated settlement to compensate for on-the-job harassment and abuse.

RCMP Const. Agata Purcell said she's sticking with the class action because she doesn't want to subject her family to the challenges of going it alone with an individual lawsuit. 

"I hope that by identifying myself as another person involved in this fiasco, I'm able to persuade someone ... who is sitting on the fence and debating whether they should pursue it or not," she told CBC News from New Brunswick, where she is stationed.

Purcell alleges she was subjected to continuous sexual harassment during her first five years on the job when she worked in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. It started almost 10 years ago, when she was two months into her new job and still in training.

Purcell recounted how a senior officer approached her and demanded she disclose to him the details of any intimate relationships so he could protect her from appearing — as he put it — "the town bicycle."

"You don't know what the rules are. You don't know what the norm is. You don't know if this is a thing that just happens as part of your training process, right? It's really hard to evaluate at the time. You go with the flow because you really have a desire to prove yourself," she recalled.

Harassment continued for years

Yet the harassment, sexualized comments and eventual taunting about getting engaged to another Mountie continued for five years.

"A supervisor, a sergeant at the time and on duty, had seen me walking my dog. He came out of his way to approach me, to talk to me and to let me know my taste in men was similar to my taste in dogs because my dog was 'f---ing ugly.' It's upsetting. It's demeaning. It's degrading and it's hard to deal with. Just one of many incidents," she said, her voice quavering with emotion.

After reporting the harassment, Purcell said she was told it was being dealt with but that she would not be told the outcome.

In the end, she and her husband were posted to a new detachment and, ever since, Purcell reports they've worked in supportive environments, free of harassment.

Compensation levels vary by abuse

Thousands of women make up the class-action sexual harassment lawsuit against the RCMP, which was certified in January. The settlement is expected to formally receive court approval at the end of May.

The federal government has set aside $100 million to compensate the women. CBC News has obtained a copy of the negotiated compensation schedule:

Level 1 — $10,000

  • Culpable conduct includes: sexualized comments and jokes, inappropriate questioning regarding complainant's personal life.
  • Effect on victim includes: anxiety, loss of self-esteem, feelings of discomfort.

Level 2 — $35,000

  • Culpable conduct includes: exposure to pornography, bullying, simulating sexual intercourse or masturbation, sexual touching.
  • Effect on victim includes: physical wound, loss of confidence in others, panic attacks, feelings of rage.

Level 3 — $70,000

  • Culpable conduct includes: gender-based putdowns, persistent kissing or touching, exposure of genitals to complainant, persistent exposure to pornography.
  • Effect on victim includes: severe anxiety, mild drug or alcohol abuse, loss of desire to communicate feelings of love or desire.

Level 4 — $100,000

  • Culpable conduct includes: touching of complainant's genitals, forcing oneself on victim physically, exposure to violent pornography.
  • Effect on victim includes: severe stress affecting health, post-traumatic stress, drug or alcohol abuse, absenteeism.

Level 5 — $150,000

  • Culpable conduct includes: persistent intimidation, bullying or aggression, forcing complainant to perform non-penetrative sex acts, assigning menial tasks.
  • Effect on victim includes: obsessional tendencies, suicidal thoughts, wound leaving a permanent mark.

Level 6 — $220,000

  • Culpable conduct includes: forcing complainant to engage in penetrative sex acts, acts to denigrate and affect career development, acts meant to cause emotional stress.
  • Effect on victim: chronic psychiatric condition, personality problems, severe post-traumatic stress.

"We're talking about criminal acts here. That some of these women have been sexually assaulted and molested. That was one of the biggest things for me. How do you put a price on that?" asked Purcell.

The document notes that amounts were calculated by analyzing decisions from human rights tribunals and the courts, along with analysis from professionals on the impact of the culpable conduct.

"We must also be alive to the fact that not all people react the same way to a traumatizing event," reads the document.

Settlement offers protections

Megan McPhee, a lawyer with Kim Orr Barristers and class counsel to the plaintiffs, said anyone who wants to pursue their own lawsuit has until the end of day Wednesday to opt out.

But McPhee feels the settlement offers unique protections.

"It's completely confidential. It's determined by an outside administrator, and the RCMP doesn't respond. They don't get to learn who's filing a claim," she said.

RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson, left, answers a question during a news conference, as plaintiffs Janet Merlo, centre, and Linda Davidson look on, in Ottawa last October. Paulson has apologized to hundreds of current and former female officers and employees for alleged incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Some women have told CBC News they're holding back because they believe the class action could cause them to lose benefits they're receiving from Veterans Affairs Canada.

"We've been able to negotiate that the receipt of a VAC pension does not preclude a woman from filing a claim," said McPhee.

Purcell said she doesn't care about the money. For her, it's about finally getting closure.

"I've come to terms with the fact that it's OK to speak openly about being a victim. That has been the biggest part of it — is not wanting to talk about it … not wanting to classify myself as a victim to the harassment."

As for another lawsuit in the works for male employees of the RCMP who allege workplace bullying and harassment, McPhee said her firm intends to proceed soon.