RCMP Class Action Suit Alleging Harassment Of Women Begins

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VANCOUVER - The lawyer representing a former female Mountie who filed a class action lawsuit over allegations of widespread harassment within the RCMP says the federal government should attempt to negotiate an end to its legal troubles rather than force the case to drag on through the courts.

David Klein, whose client Janet Merlo filed her lawsuit last year, was in court for a procedural hearing Tuesday, a day after the commissioner of the RCMP complained the force was being targeted by "outlandish claims."

On Monday, Commissioner Bob Paulson told a Senate committee the force was being tarnished by unproven claims that are nonetheless "put forward as though they are gospel."

Paulson singled out three alleged cases of abuse — two put forward by men, one by a woman — as he suggested some officers were spending more time complaining than working to make things better. Merlo's case was not among them.

"We're surprised, we're very surprised," Klein said outside court on Tuesday.

"When you take a look at the RCMP's action plan (for addressing harassment), they clearly say they want to sit down and settle these cases. My clients have said, 'Yes, absolutely, sit down with us.' So far, we've just gotten a flat-out 'No.'"

The proposed class-action case was launched by Merlo in March 2012, more than two years after she left the force.

Merlo alleged her 19-year career was overshadowed by years of name-calling, sexist pranks and requests for sexual favours, and she asked that her case be certified as a class action. The allegations have not been proven in court.

When the case was initially filed, Klein suggested more than 100 current and former officers had indicated they wanted to join the case. On Tuesday, he said the number was now almost 300 — about one-third of which are still active members of the force.

The case has yet to be certified as a class-action lawsuit. Merlo's lawyer wants a certification hearing in December, while a federal government asked a judge Tuesday to delay such a hearing until April or May of next year.

Complicating the timing is a motion from the federal government to strike down several sections of Merlo's original statement of claim.

Those sections largely focus on technical legal points, such as whether the federal government can be held directly negligent for RCMP officers' actions if they don't relate specifically to policing, or whether RCMP officers have an explicit contract of employment with the federal government that includes a duty to protect them from harassment.

The government is also arguing Merlo filed her lawsuit too late, since she had been out of the force for more than two years, and shouldn't be allowed to proceed at all.

The federal government wants the court to hear its arguments next month, but Klein argued in court the government's motion to strike portions of Merlo's lawsuit should be heard at the same time as the class-action certification.

The judge did not rule on either the timing of government's motion or the certification hearing, or whether they will be held together.

Klein said the federal government should focus on negotiating an end to the case rather than continuing to allow the case to drag on.

"We've proposed to them that we sit down with a mediator and talk about solutions," said Klein.

"So far, they've said 'No' to sitting down to talk."

Inside court, Mitchell Taylor, a lawyer for the federal government, said it would be "premature" to consider mediation at this stage.

Among the people in the public gallery for Tuesday's hearing was Mary Kostashuk, a former RCMP sergeant who has approached Klein about joining the class-action case.

Kostashuk retired in April after a career that spanned more than three decades, mostly in the Vancouver-area. Before she retired, she worked in commercial crime and market enforcement.

Kostashuk said she experienced years of name-calling and bullying in what she described as a "toxic" workplace, but she said when she attempted to complain in 2009, she was told it was her that was the problem.

However, she hesitated when asked whether she believed her alleged treatment was related to her gender.

"I was called names, I was left out of certain projects," she said outside court, standing next to Klein.

"I felt that it was about supervisors' lack of abilities to supervise. For me, it's hard to tell (whether it was gender-based), because I was naive and people have to tell me to give my head a shake and say, 'The things that happened to you were because you were female.'"

Merlo is among several female Mounties who have filed lawsuits in recent years, the most high profile of which is Catherine Galliford, a former RCMP spokeswoman who has become the face of the mountain of claims of harassment within the force.

In several of those cases, the federal government has filed statements of defence that deny the allegations and instead blame the women for either not taking steps to report the alleged abuse or by making their own situations worse.

Last year, the force's British Columbia division produced a report that found female Mounties felt there was little consequence for sexual harassment. While the report concluded such harassment was not widespread, many of the women who participated in focus groups for the report recalled their own stories of being bullied and harassed.

The RCMP responded to the report by announcing an online tool to help RCMP members to report harassment and a team of dedicated harassment advisers.

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