On February 1, former RCMP Constable Janet Merlo spoke to a packed gathering hosted by the Department of Gender Studies at Memorial University about her experience of sexual harassment in the force. The harassment she along with thousands of other women in the RCMP experienced became the subject of a class action suit that was settled out of court last year. Her story, which is outlined in detail in her own book No One To Tell: Breaking My Silence on Life in the RCMP, is a powerful one that tackles a misogyny still deeply rooted in many workplaces, and one we thought we should share.
Merlo looks out across campus, reminiscing about her days as a student and how much the university landscape has changed. An alumni of Squires House, she fondly recalls some of the antics of residence life.
Joining the RCMP was not a career move she’d planned to pursue upon graduation, but a friend of hers was taking the entrance exam and Merlo offered to go along with her as moral support. When the officer administering the test scoffed at Merlo and said “You’re just not writing the test because you won’t pass it,” she took him up on the challenge, passed and was accepted to the force.
“I think myself and the other thousands of people who joined the RCMP did so for the basic reason to help people,” she recalls. But she never imagined the scale of harassment she would experience, from basic training onward.
“When I left the RCMP I didn’t go willingly, I went after putting up with years and years of harassment within the force. It was affecting my life and my health and my marriage so much that I ended up just walking away.”
Women had been allowed in the RCMP since 1974, but the conditions under which they worked were horrendous.
The harassment began with her basic training, Merlo explained, where women recruits were targeted as a group.
“If we were marching and doing our drill, the corporal would yell out at the top of his lungs, ‘What was the worst year in the history of the RCMP?’ And we were expected to yell back at the top of our lungs, ‘1974 corporal!’ ‘Why 1974?’ ‘Because that’s the first year women were allowed in, corporal!’
“And if the girls were walking on the base and a male instructor went by, they would scream at the top of their lungs ‘Fuck 1974!’ just so everyone on the base could hear it, because they didn’t want the women there. And that was in training, before I even got to my posting.”
After she finished training, she got posted to Nanaimo, British Columbia, where things got worse.
“The original corporal on my watch had a naked, life-sized blow-up doll. And he would have that standing by his filing cabinet on night shifts. And when we went to go in and bring in our files for reading, he would have the girls stand next to the blow-up doll because he wanted to compare our statures. And that went on for years. Management, upper management, everyone knew about his blow-up doll but nobody said a word. Every night shift it was inflated and by his desk.”
She eventually started dating an officer, and when word got out, the other male officers started making sexual comments about her to him. They eventually married. The harassment continued.
“If we were sitting around a table at a briefing at the beginning of the night and there weren’t enough people working—we always had a watch of fifteen people—and if there were seven and I said to the watch commander of that night ‘Gee we should call in a couple of extra bodies because we’re pretty low’, he’d roll his eyes at all the men around the table and say ‘Oh, Merlo’s on the rag again.’ But if one of the guys brought it up, he’d be complimented on his attention to officer safety, and someone would be called in.
“After a while, when you speak up like that and you just get shot down like that, you stop speaking up. And you stop saying anything. You stop engaging and you stop feeling. I did that in every aspect of my life. I just shut down, and shut down to the point where I just couldn’t take it any more. I would go into the police station early, because just going in through the back door I would get physically sick.
“I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating properly, my hair was falling out in clumps…my whole body was fretting from the stress, and worrying about going in to work. ‘What are they going to call me today?’ and ‘What are they going to say in front of all my peers?’ you know? You’re trying to go out and do a job and back somebody up, and you strap on your bulletproof vest and your gun belt and you go off and you don’t know if you’re ever going to go home again at the end of the day—any day—but then you go out and you’re already so stressed out because your boss has called you names and they’re yelling and screaming and calling you everything you can think of…it’s too much to handle, for sure.”
It took time for the national scale of the harassment to reveal itself. Merlo explained one horrifying realization that only emerged after talking with women from other parts of the country in an online support group: women who joined had often been given nicknames—DB One, DB Three, DB Five.
”The meaning of that is Dumb Bitch. Dumb Bitch One, Dumb Bitch Three, Dumb Bitch Five. As women arrived at the detachments that’s the nicknames they were given…that just goes to show how systemic it is.”
One of the worst things that happened, she said, occurred when she became pregnant. The practice was for women officers to be transferred to desk duty as the pregnancy progressed. When she provided her doctor’s note to the operations officer to facilitate the transfer, “He yelled and screamed and called me everything he could think of, and said that I better get my priorities straight. Either I was going to have a career in the RCMP or I was going to pump out kids my whole life. And he was just over and over, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do with you now? What the hell am I going to do with you now?’
“When I left his office that day, he told me to get out of his office and close the door, and when I was about to close the door he said ‘Next time keep your effing legs closed.’ So, our girls are five years apart…because I would not go back in there again pregnant until that person transferred out.”
Other officers made fun of her too, both during and after her pregnancy. “The badgering was just unreal,” she recalls.
Complaints and punishment
When she began to complain about the harassment, she was interviewed by a staff officer.
“The staffing person from Vancouver came over and told me that I wasn’t welcome in Nanaimo anymore, that nobody liked me, there was no respect, I had to go. So basically what they were doing, because I had made my complaint more formal…I was getting punished for that. And the punishment was getting transferred away from [my husband] and the kids.”
Because she was transferred and her husband was not, they wound up having to keep two residences—behaviour designed to raise pressure on her, she explained. “They thought I would just quit.”
She wrote the RCMP Commissioner in 2007 and asked him to help, both in dealing with the harassment and addressing the punitive transfer. Twenty-five months later, in 2009, she received a response.
“They did a thorough investigation of themselves over two years, and they came back with a multi-page final report saying nothing had happened. There was no harassment, nobody saw anything, no one witnessed it.”
The report contained inconsistencies, contradictions and untruths, she explained. She was not allowed to see the statements, even though she knew from the report that some were untrue.
The harassment, the punitive retribution, the lack of substantive investigation or support took its toll, and she made the decision to retire in 2010. The next year, she saw an interview with Catherine Galliford, an RCMP corporal with whom Merlo had trained when she first joined. Galliford spoke about the harassment she’d experienced.
“I watched her and I just cried, because her story was my story,” said Merlo. She contacted the reporter who interviewed Galliford. The reporter told her she’d received emails from 150 other women with similar responses. This is what spurred Merlo to go public.
The RCMP Commissioner initially depicted them as “disgruntled employees”, said Merlo, but after 400 women came forward “he came out in public and said the RCMP was in the middle of a sexual harassment crisis.” A class action lawsuit was launched. It started with 25 women, but Merlo said now “the number of women who might submit claim packages in my lawsuit may top 4000.”
It was eventually settled out of court. “The settlement included several change initiatives in the RCMP. They’re going to hire more women and they’re going to do more respectful workplace training…whether they’ll ever do it, I don’t know, but now they’ll be held accountable because it’s a court order.”
There was financial compensation as well, but Merlo notes that “for all of us who lost our careers years before we had to, it’s a far cry from what we would have made over our working lives and our pensions and stuff, but at least it’s something for our kids to move on with.”
“I have PTSD now, I hardly leave my house…it’s had some real lasting effects that no amount of money will ever buy back.”
Bringing about change
How do you change an institution in which sexism and misogyny has been so deeply ingrained for so many years?
“The problems in the RCMP are probably [the same] as anywhere else,” says Merlo. “It’s mostly management. They don’t like having women tell them what to do. They don’t like having women superior to them. That’s part of the paramilitary organization of the police force. And I don’t know that that works in current society. The military has had to make some major changes in its structure and how it treats women, and I think the RCMP is going to have to follow suit.”
Most women in the RCMP, she explains, retire at 25 years. “Very few go beyond that and go up the ladder in any kind of management, because it’s just too frustrating.”
As part of the settlement, they’ve asked for an independent body to oversee these types of problems in the force, so people aren’t afraid of coming forward with complaints. Having an independent, trained body is crucial to bringing about change, says Merlo. “The people that are now being asked to fix the problem are the ones that created it – the people in management that have let it go on for so long.”
There’s currently a search underway for a new head of the RCMP, and a lot will hinge on the new top officer.
“It’s going to have to be someone who’s strong and goes in and lays down the law from day one and moves forward rather than try to cover up everything that’s happened in the past. New day, onward and upward, and gets rid of the bad apples. We’ll see.
“If they hire somebody who’s good, who comes in and cleans house, then that’s going to work well for the force, and there is potential there to clean it up and get rid of the bad apples.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s silence on the RCMP harassment was raised by audience members at the talk.
“He claims to be a feminist and to be actively working on feminist things, but he hasn’t said a word about this,” observed Merlo sadly.
She’s also concerned about the impunity which perpetrators in the RCMP appear to enjoy.
“The rule of law should apply to everyone the same. A lot of these women are coming forward with brutal sex assault allegations. And there’s no statute of limitations in the criminal code for sexual assault. But these guys will never be arrested and charged, these RCMP guys. It’ll never happen. If it happened at Walmart, and all these women came forward, and the male had sexually assaulted the females, it would be dealt with, he would be arrested. But not the RCMP. They get away with just about anything. So we got to get rid of the ones that allow that stuff to happen.”
Tackling harassment is an ongoing challenge
One of the most daunting aspects of harassment, Merlo explained, is that those experiencing it often think they’re alone. It’s only after her complaints were made public and the case began to gather steam that the scale of harassment became apparent. She described going to court in Vancouver, and encountering five other women there who had also been in Nanaimo.
“We all were going through it, and nobody said anything. I thought I was the only one, so I didn’t say anything. They thought they were the only ones…we all thought we were alone.”
One of the key lessons she tells people these days is how important it is to talk to other people about what’s going on.
“If any of you are in a place or in a classroom where there’s bullying and harassment, my number one thing – that I never did – is talk about it to somebody, because you never know who else is going through it as well. Keep notes – keep everything. Tape record conversations if you need to.”
While the #MeToo movement and other broad-scale movements have revealed the horrifying scale of harassment in many fields and workplaces, the determination of so many people to hold perpetrators to account has also been an important source of support.
“Over the past five years, just seeing so many more women talk and open up about it, it’s validating to see that people are finding their voice and finally something is being done,” said Merlo.
Talking about change
Merlo’s story sparked some serious discussion among audience participants.
“What about the men you worked with? Did they all remain silent?” asked one of the audience members. “I think that that speaks to complicity, that they don’t speak out.”
Merlo reflected on the position some of those men had been in.
“The hard part for them—I’ve heard from so many guys that I’ve worked with over the years and they’re apologetic. They say ‘We saw it but we were powerless. If we had spoken up, then we’d never get that course, we’d never get that promotion’. Because it’d be ‘Oh he sticks up for the girls, he’s a pussy like the rest of them.’ One poor guy took parental leave when his wife had a baby—she was self-employed—and they tortured that man. They tortured him. He didn’t even want to come back to work after, because they were calling him, they were sending him messages and letters with every condescending thing…he was tortured.”
Throughout her talk, Merlo acknowledged the presence of many good men in the force.
“There’s lots of good officers in the force, I’m not here to badmouth any good hardworking moral officer, and there are still lots of them. What I’m here to talk about is the minority, but the potent minority, in any workplace or campus or anywhere that harasses and makes the lives of other people almost intolerable…the potent minority at the top, in management and upper management, is where the change needs to come.”
Her ex-husband faced particularly cruel retribution because Merlo spoke out.
“When I was finished with the RCMP and I was done, they were brutal. They went after him to get back at me. They told him if they ever saw him leave work with a pen in his pocket, they’d charge him with theft and fire him. They tortured him…even today they will send a fax down to his office and say ‘Hey faggot, put on coffee. We’re coming for coffee.’ The name-calling, even today…he’s more than paid the price for what I’ve done. He was coming home from work every day, searching himself before he left the police station thinking that they were going to put something in his pockets to fire him to get back at me.”
“But a lot of guys who did stay quiet, I can kind of understand why. I mean they tore us apart when we spoke up, so—they had wives and mortgages and careers. A lot of them saw it, for sure.”
Audience members brought up the #MeToo movement, and in particular the backlash that is now emerging against women who have spoken out.
“I’m wondering what your response is to some of the backlash we’re seeing now coming against the MeToo movement,” asked one audience member. “People are saying ‘It’s a witchhunt’ or ‘It’s gone too far…’ I’m wondering what your response to that backlash would be?”
The notion that somebody would make up allegations is ridiculous, says Merlo.
“Having been one of the ones that comes forward and puts yourself out there for all the ridicule and insults and everything that we put up with and dealt with first when we went public, there’s nobody who would sign up for that willingly. No one is going to do that, because I tell you it hurts to the core. And it’s different now, seeing supportive voices when there’s a story. The more MeToo and all those movements come forward, the more support you get when there’s a story about wrongdoing in the RCMP. People are a little more, ‘Okay, yeah, we believe it now’. But it was a rough go.
“I did a lot of sex assault investigations over the years, historical and ones that were current. I don’t think any woman would ever put herself through a complaint like that and the trial and the scrutiny that you go through for a witch hunt. Yeah, there’s going to be some crazy ones out there for sure, but I think the system will be able to weed those out pretty quickly.
“And I don’t think it’s a witch hunt. I think it’s their comeuppance for years of harassment and years of stuff that’s gone on in the workplace. I think it’s time to hand them their butts on a platter.”
Audience members concurred, with some women sharing experiences of their own. One audience member spoke about the men around her who sometimes complain that ‘political correctness’ in the face of sexual harassment has gone too far.
“[Men] would say things like ‘You don’t know what you can say any more,’ and I would think, women for generations have experienced this. People who were my age, when you were young you’d be told in the workplace who to avoid. You were given certain warnings by other women. You had to learn to take certain comments, that was just the way things were…
“Certain things in the past were just dismissed as ‘Oh that’s the way this is’, but if you ask the question ‘Would I want my own daughter to experience this?’ the answer is no. This was harassment. Certain things were simply accepted. I suspect there isn’t a woman who can say she wasn’t on the receiving end of something. Because the longer you lived, the more opportunity you had to have experienced this.”
Other audience members were concerned about the broader impacts of harassment on the justice system. When harassment of this scale is going on within the force, and accepted and tolerated—even encouraged—by management, how does this affect policing?
“Look at the Pickton file,” replied Merlo. “They were drug-addicted, prostitutes, lower downtown east side of Vancouver, skid row. Another one’s gone missing. Another one’s gone missing. Thirty are missing. Forty are missing. Nobody cared. Nobody cared. So how do these guys treat women on the street—the lowest, most vulnerable women—how do they treat them when they treat their co-workers as bad as they do? And for the good guys—the good ones that I worked with, and I had lots of good coworkers—in order to get promoted and the courses you want, you got to buy into that mentality. It’s like they say, you’ve got to sell your soul to the devil and take on the ‘I can concur with management’ idea in order to get promoted.”
“So hopefully we’ll all be changemakers. If you see it happening, speak up, and if it’s happening to you, speak up. There’s lots of support out there now.”