Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

‘I didn’t know what racism was until I joined’: The RCMP has a systemic problem. But what is being done?

January 4, 2023

That the Mounties have a systemic problem with racism and harassment is not in question. What’s less clear is what’s being done about it.

Toronto Star: This is the second part in a special Star series looking at Canada’s national police force and what some say are the existential challenges it is facing. 

For three years, the RCMP officer had come to see Margorie Hudson at the Berens River First Nation, on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, and tried to persuade her to become the first Indigenous woman in Manitoba to join the force. In the third year, Hudson relented, wrote the exam and was accepted.

She recalls clearly the first words she heard as an RCMP trainee from the man who had been recruiting her.

“‘They’re accepting you,’ he said, ‘But don’t ever quit. Please don’t ever quit,’” she recounts. “I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because they think you’re going to quit because you’re an Indian.’

“I didn’t know why they would say that,” she says. That was in 1979, her first day in the RCMP, and it was an eye-opener for a woman who had no idea what lay ahead.

“I didn’t know what racism was until I joined the RCMP, and I wondered why they were treating me so different,” she says now.

For the next 30 years, she kept on refusing to quit, despite the racist slurs and taunts from her co-workers, directed at her and at Indigenous members of the public; despite, she alleges in a proposed class action lawsuit, being sent to the scenes of murders and robberies and assaults with no backup; despite being passed over again and again for promotions, training and transfers; despite doing the same work for less pay than non-racialized members.

For three decades, her complaints to supervisors would be ignored — or bring vindictive responses — until, she says, the relentless racism took its toll on her health, forcing her to take a medical leave. She had begun to feel that her enemy was not the crime and criminals she had signed on to battle but rather the RCMP itself.

Facing a request from the force to return to what she considered a toxic environment, Hudson finally called it quits in March 2009. She threw her badge in the garbage on the way out.

Margorie Hudson is pictured after receiving her 25th year medal from the RCMP in 2004.

That the RCMP has a systemic problem with racism and harassment is not in question.

Commissioner Brenda Lucki, the top Mountie, has said as much, though she first stumbled during a June interview, saying she was “struggling with the definition” of systemic racism and how it applied to the RCMP before correcting herself a week later.

What’s less clear is what’s being done about it.

Though several studies have established the need for drastic changes in the national police force — the most recent of which was from the government’s standing committee on public safety and national security in June 2021 — in the eyes of many, the RCMP has largely failed to turn recommendations from those reports into meaningful change.

“For almost 30 years the RCMP and the government have known that there are pervasive issues of workplace sexual harassment and gender- and sexual-orientation-based discrimination. Initiatives taken to date do not seem to have had the desired effect.”

That was written in 2020 by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache in “Broken Dreams, Broken Lives: The Devastating Effects of Sexual Harassment on Women in the RCMP,” his report on the 2016 settlement of the Merlo-Davidson gender harassment class action suit.

When he summed up his report, he was scathing: “One of the key findings of this report is that the culture of the RCMP is toxic and tolerates misogynistic and homophobic attitudes amongst its leaders and members.”

Janet Merlo is pictured with her badge on her RCMP graduation day in 1991.

That assessment came as no surprise to the woman whose name headlines the class action in question.

What did surprise Janet Merlo, an RCMP officer from 1991 to 2010, was that a successful class action suit involving thousands of women appeared to have had almost no impact on the national police force. As the years went by and the suit that bears her name was settled — with then RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson issuing a tearful apology, along with a promise to do better — she watched closely for any signs of meaningful change.

But what she thought at the time was a “turning point” turned out to be chimerical, she says now. “It’s sad that the victims of all this — years after the formal apology and the promise for better — still have to be the ones advocating for change,” she says. “We should have been able to put this to bed in 2016 … knowing we had done what we needed to do.

“And here we are six, seven years later, still fighting for the basic changes. “It’s pathetic, really, that the government allows (the lack of action) and the RCMP hasn’t done it.”

The appointment of a female commissioner in 2018, one who came in with a plan to revamp the RCMP, kindled a spark of optimism in Merlo. But thus far, in Merlo’s opinion, Lucki — despite her Vision 150 plan for change in the RCMP — has not brought substantial change.

Former RCMP constable Janet Merlo, of Nanaimo, B.C., is shown outside B.C. Supreme Court during a break in a hearing to seek certification of a class action lawsuit against the RCMP over sexual harassment and gender discrimination, in Vancouver, B.C., back in June of 2015.

When Merlo arrived at her first posting in the fall of 1991, in Nanaimo, B.C., her supervisor had a naked, life-size blow-up doll that he would inflate on the night shift, she says. “When the women would go in to put their files in the basket, he would ask us to stand next to the naked blow-up doll so he could compare our statures,” she says.

There were daily things. There were sex toys and lewd notes placed in her locker. There was the officer who, whenever she collected money for the office lottery, insisted on jamming a $5 bill in her shirt pocket. “Or he’d want to put his change in my pants pocket and play for a little while while he was in there.”

When she first got pregnant and came into the office with a medical note putting her on desk duty, she says, she was yelled at by her supervisors. She says she was told to get her priorities straight and asked whether she was going to have a career in the RCMP or whether she was going to pop out kids. She was told to keep her “f—ing legs” closed.

Despite the harassment, she stuck it out for 20 years.

She says she loved the job, loved the people she met, and loved helping people solve their problems. Like Hudson, that was what she’d signed on for. But the problems increased with time. Daily harassment became 10-times-a-day harassment, she says. She began writing up her files in the car so she’d have to spend less time in the detachment office.

“The result of me making my concerns formal and formal documentation was an immediate transfer to the Lower Mainland,” she says. “They knew that if they punitively transferred me out of the island to the Lower Mainland, that would probably make me quit because they knew I wouldn’t leave my husband and kids.

Her health failing as a result of anxiety, she went on stress leave. Eventually, a psychologist recommended a medical discharge. Merlo left the RCMP in 2010.

'I didn't know what racism was until I joined the RCMP, and I wondered why they were treating me so different,' Margorie Hudson says of when she started with the force.

More than 2,300 women received settlements in the Merlo-Davidson suit, which covered women who experienced sexual harassment and gender or sexual orientation discrimination while working with the Mounties as of September 1974 or after.

In a chapter entitled “The RCMP’s culture is toxic and must be addressed by the government,” Justice Bastarache noted that among the 3,068 claims he assessed by women who worked for the RCMP, there were 131 cases of outright rape, some the result of the use of force, some the result of a date-rape drug, sometimes when a victim was too intoxicated to be capable of consent. Some instances, he wrote, included multiple assailants.

“The women had to continue working with their assailants with no one to tell,” he wrote. “In all cases the women told us that they would never have suspected that a fellow officer would assault them in any manner, let alone sexually.”

“These men were often not held accountable for their actions. Indeed, the assessors were told that one tactic used by the RCMP to resolve complaints of sexual harassment was to promote and transfer these men. One claimant pithily stated that the RCMP is the Catholic Church of policing.”

In all, the payouts from the federal government topped $125 million to settle the Merlo-Davidson lawsuit claims.

In 2019, the RCMP settled another class action suit, this one for women who worked for the force in non-policing roles who had experienced gender- and sexual-orientation-based harassment and discrimination. Settlements in that suit surpassed $20 million.

Another, proposed class action, filed in 2020 on behalf of racialized people who worked or currently work for the RCMP, alleges “widespread systemic racism by RCMP non-racialized members and RCMP management.” Margorie Hudson is the lead plaintiff in that case.

Former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache delivered a scathing report on RCMP culture.

And a fourth class action, certified by the Federal Court of Canada in September, seeks a reported $1.1 billion in damages, alleging a systemic culture of bullying and harassment. That suit includes all current and former RCMP members as of 1995 who were not included in the previous class actions. A similar suit has been filed in Quebec covering RCMP employees there.

To recap, that means there are settled or current class action suits against the RCMP filed by its employees that include as plaintiffs: women, racialized members and everyone else who’s worked for the Mounties. And that doesn’t touch upon the numerous suits filed for racism, discrimination and harassment by those outside the RCMP.

Externally, another class action, seeking a reported $600 million in damages, alleges the RCMP systematically brutalized Indigenous people in Northern Canada.

A further $600 million in damages is sought in yet another class action — still seeking certification — alleging the RCMP has been systemically negligent in its investigations into murdered and missing Indigenous women across Canada.

The totals are staggering: $145 million paid out to settle two class actions, and the potential for another $2.3 billion.

There are several more suits pending. Asked for a list of current class action lawsuits, or at least the number, the RCMP demurred, telling the Star to check court filings.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.

While the force acknowledges the problems it faces, and offers plans to counteract those problems, it’s difficult to tell what meaningful progress it has made.

Lucki came into the commissioner’s position in 2018 with her Vision 150 plan, one that was supposed to, over the course of five to seven years, reform the RCMP. The Mounties’ website lays out, in often impenetrable detail, the action plan for dealing with its failings, along with “trackers” to measure progress. But while the detail is long on bureaucratic rhetoric, it is short on specifics.

One of the RCMP’s answers to its systemic racism problems is to collect and analyze race-based data.

The latest on that mandate as of May? “… On track to put in place a race-based data collection system.”

The Mounties’ Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) report — updated in May — elaborates somewhat: a dedicated team has been established, and that team has produced a “draft policy framework.”

Another mandate: to “modernize recruitment to increase diversity.”

The RCMP’s numbers do not paint a particularly hopeful picture on that score.

“For the RCMP, for 2020-2021, the Workforce Diversity Analyses identifies that previously observed trends for each of the four employment equity groups remain largely unchanged. This underscores the need for greater action,” writes RCMP chief human resources officer Gail Johnson in the EDI report.

The percentage of female officers in the force has remained largely the same over the past five years. And although the percentage of visible minorities has shown a slight increase, the percentage of Indigenous officers and those with disabilities has decreased.

Furthermore, also in the past five years, the overall number of female applicants to the RCMP has dropped slightly, as has that of Indigenous people. The number of visible minority applicants has increased. In spite of that, the percentages of women and visible minority members newly hired at the RCMP have both increased slightly; the percentage of new hires who are Indigenous has decreased, as has that of people with disabilities.

The new hires have been somewhat offset by members leaving the force.

Over the 2020-21 period covered by the EDI report, 200 more women left the RCMP than were hired. Ninety-one Indigenous employees left the force, compared to only 17 hires. And while there were nine hires of people with disabilities, 68 left the force.

Meanwhile, 156 visible minorities were hired and 131 left the RCMP, for a net increase of 25.

In June 2021, the Mounties established an Independent Centre for Harassment Resolution (ICHR), an independent unit designed to “facilitate resolution of workplace harassment and violence occurrences for RCMP employees.” The force would not say how many cases had been seen by the ICHR since it was established, or how many RCMP members had faced discipline as a result of those cases.

Two mandatory training courses were created. The RCMP reports that 95 per cent of its members have completed a Cultural Awareness and Humility course. It has not provided details on how many of its members have completed the anti-racism course.

The RCMP declined multiple requests for interviews for this story and failed to provide answers to written questions about its performance in eliminating systemic racism and harassment.

For Merlo, there is one small light at the end of the tunnel.

RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson, left, answers a question during a news conference, as plaintiffs Janet Merlo, centre, and Linda Davidson look on, in Ottawa Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. Paulson apologized to hundreds of current and former female officers and employees for alleged incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment.

Of the several formal studies and reports on RCMP misconduct over the past two decades, she says, one recommendation has been almost universal: the creation of an independent body to investigate and provide oversight of the RCMP.

Bill C-20, currently wending its way through Parliament, calls for the creation of an independent Public Complaints and Review Commission to replace the current Civilian Review and Complaints Commission in providing oversight of both RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency personnel.

By law, current and former members of both the RCMP and the CBSA would be excluded from the commission. Among other things, C-20 gives the commission the power to recommend that the RCMP or the CBSA initiate a disciplinary-related process, or impose a disciplinary measure. The agencies are not bound to act on that recommendation, but they would have to justify their action — or inaction — to the public safety minister.

The bill would require the RCMP to respond to complaints within six months — a feature absent from the current commission — and the heads of both the RCMP and the CBSA would be required to report annually to the commission head on their progress in carrying out recommendations the commission has made. The new commission would also be required to collect and publish race-based data to increase knowledge about systemic racism.

For Merlo, who has been lobbying for the bill, C-20 represents an independent RCMP watchdog with bigger teeth. She says the bill, which has passed a second reading, is heading into committee with all-party support.

“We’re very hopeful this bill will be the one thing that they’ve recommended for years that the government has avoided,” she says. “But I think they’re feeling now like the RCMP is starting to fall apart. I think they realize they need to do this or it’s just going to get worse.”