A proposed class-action lawsuit alleging bullying and harassment against women in the RCMP got a high-profile champion on the first day of hearings Thursday.
Valerie MacLean, an RCMP constable at Maple Ridge in the late 1970s and former head of the Better Business Bureau, said she’s joined the suit in an attempt to get justice and a fair hearing for the victims.
“We didn’t join to be harassed or be humiliated or be told that our career depended on us being friendly or having relations with our direct supervisors,” MacLean told reporters.
She said she complained to other officers when her supervisor pressured her to be “friendly” in exchange for advancement, but nothing was done and she quit the force in 1979 after he gave her a poor assessment.
“Years later, nothing has changed,” MacLean said. “This systemic culture in the RCMP of harassment and not accepting these women as equals has to stop.”
Lawyers expect a long legal battle with the RCMP on behalf of potentially hundreds of women who allege abusive behaviour by other Mounties while serving in the force.
It’s expected to take until sometime in 2013 for a ruling on whether the proposed class-action lawsuit will be certified.
At the centre of the case is former Nanaimo RCMP Const. Janet Merlo, whose claim alleges she was the victim of “persistent and ongoing gender-based discrimination and harassment” by male Mounties at the detachment and that the RCMP did nothing to stop it.
Jason Murray, one of Merlo’s lawyers, said more than 200 other women – current and former Mounties – have stepped forward to join the potential class action since Merlo’s initial claim was filed.
“We’ve heard from women ranging from constables up to the senior ranks of the force,” he said.
“There is a common thread amongst all of the women who have contacted us,” Murray said. “They feel the RCMP has cultivated an atmosphere where discrimination against women happens where it shouldn’t and [the force] has not taken adequate steps to either avoid or fix the problem.”
The initial day of hearings was procedural and no more dates are expected for several months while senior government prepare responses.
So far the force has given no indication it is prepared to negotiate, he said.
“If the RCMP wants to fight tooth and nail, it will be a long process,” Murray said.
“If the RCMP wants to move forward quickly and make real change, the opportunity is there.”
Murray said he was troubled by the RCMP’s “mud slinging” response to the separate harassment lawsuit of former RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Catherine Galliford.
The force denied her claims of abuse and sexual assault and painted her as an alcoholic who refused treatment.
RCMP spokesman Cpl. David Falls said the force is challenging the certification because it doesn’t meet the criteria of a class action, adding the allegations have not yet been heard in court and wouldn’t until and unless a class action is certified.
“The RCMP has a responsibility to protect itself against unproven and harmful allegations, and those to whom the RCMP is ultimately accountable expect nothing less,” he said.
“If, after investigation, there are cases found to have merit, the RCMP will give them the appropriate consideration.”
Merlo worked for the RCMP in Nanaimo from 1991 to 2010.
Her allegations include that male officers tried to position her next to an inflatable naked female doll that was kept at the detachment.
Her claim recounts a barrage of insults, derogatory comments and sexual innuendo, sometimes with senior officers brandishing sex toys or claiming to her husband that they’d had sex with her.
Her pregnancy was also fodder for abuse, according to the claim, which says male officers ridiculed her ability to do her job while expecting and that an angry supervisor yelled at her when told she was pregnant.
Merlo claims she received unfair treatment – male Mounties could go on three-hour hockey games and got easier sick time and shift change arrangements than she did.
Merlo alleges she was told to “forget about it” or “walk away” when she raised complaints of discrimination or harassment, which were investigated and dismissed.