Women still struggling to make RCMP's elite Emergency Response Team

The RCMP is struggling to add women to its elite emergency response team, despite changing the selection process four years ago.

In the unit’s 40-year history, just one woman has successfully joined its ranks

The first and only woman to join the Emergency Response Team, Staff Sgt. Val Brooks, served with the Toronto unit between 2004 and 2008. (Val Brooks)

The RCMP is struggling to add women to its elite Emergency Response Team, despite changing the selection process four years ago. 

In the unit's 40-year history, just one woman has successfully joined the ranks.

It's a number Const. Amanda Nelles hopes to change. 

The Manitoba-based officer was one of eight women who tried out for a team last year. While that's still a relatively small number compared to the 100 or so men who apply annually, it's a boost from other years when a sole woman could be spotted on the training field.

Joining the team has been a dream of Nelles's since she started out at the RCMP training depot in Regina. ERT members are called out to high-risk situations — everything from protecting the prime minister to hostage situations and aircraft intervention. 

"The fact that there's only been one woman, that I know of, that's been on a team was incredibly motivating for me," she said in an interview. 

"I'm an adrenalin junkie."

Getting ready meant waking up before her regular day shift to use the makeshift gym in her garage, and then returning for another workout after a full day on the job.

"You look at some of the requirements and it's daunting," she said.

In an effort to address perceived barriers about the program, officials with the national emergency response team changed the program's physical standards and selection process back in 2015.

That meant scrapping the 2.5-kilometre run, pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups and 65-kilogram bench press four years ago.

Added pressure

It's still a demanding tryout that saw Nelles wear a nine-kilogram weighted vest while scrambling to climb a nearly two-metre wall. 

And other components were added to the process when some of the physical requirements were scrapped.

"ERT was one of the first units within the RCMP to apply the critical thinking tools developed by the Department for Women and Gender Equality ... to identify and address any systemic biases that might hold great officers back for reasons unrelated to the actual job," said spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval. 

"The new selection framework does not lower our standards of performance, or compromise our ability to keep our team members and Canadians safe."

Nelles, who offered up that she stands about five feet tall and weighs about 54 kilograms (120 pounds), didn't make it past the first day.

Undaunted, she plans on trying out again.

Most years just one female officer and up to 100 male officers apply to join the Emergency Response Team. Last year, eight women tried out. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

"You can either let it crush you and you don't try again or you figure out a way to use it in a positive way. And just build on it and come back better," she said. 

If Nelles eventually does make it on the team she'll only be the second woman to do so.

The first and only woman to join the team, Staff Sgt. Val Brooks, served with the Toronto unit between 2004 and 2008.

"I get called fairly frequently over the years from females that are, you know, training in there. They're hoping to get into the program and they're looking for advice and feedback," Brooks said. "I always kind of think, 'OK. Well there's going to be another one.' And for whatever reason, they don't make it."

Brooks said her time on the team was rewarding, but success came with added responsibility.

"I always felt like there was a little bit more pressure on me as a female and that the guys were always watching, you know, how's the female going to handle this or going to do that," she said. 

"I didn't want to screw up. I didn't want to mess up. I had to bring my A game."

Targeted recruitment

The RCMP said it has no plans to further tweak the selection process, but it is trying to do a better job of encouraging people to try out. 

"We could probably do a better job of targeting our recruitment to a component of the force [who] probably never had given it any serious consideration," said National ERT co-ordinator Christian Dupuis. 

"Nobody knows until the last day of the year of course who's going to pass, but if we can get more people to come and express an interest, then that increases the likelihood that we can meet some of our attrition rates."

Neither Brooks nor Nelles wants to see the physical standards change any further, but both see a value in having more women on specialized teams, even for simple jobs like searching female suspects.

"It's a different way of thinking, a different mindset," Brooks said. 

"I was obviously smaller in stature than pretty much all the guys on the team. So I can recall a time that an attic needed to be searched in a house that we had entered and so guess who was doing that job?"

Dupuis echoed that sentiment.

"Diversity is a strength of a team," he said. 

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