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The RCMP Makes Women Its Enemy

06/11/2013 12:22 EDT | Updated 08/10/2013 05:12 EDT

By Colin Kenny

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews insists he wants more women in the RCMP. Why then, are government lawyers working so diligently to discourage female recruitment?

Last November the minister sent RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson a stern letter demanding the quick formulation of an action plan to move from the current level of around 20 per cent women in the national police service to 30 per cent. The minister also called for an end to the RCMP's gender-biased work environment and more promotions of female officers, who are not well represented in senior ranks.

All good. One can imagine a qualified woman considering a police career to read about this letter leaked by Toews' office and be at least marginally more enthusiastic about joining the RCMP.

Except, well, it certainly isn't encouraging that the government has drastically cut back on RCMP recruitment, which means Toews' 30 percent solution will probably take 30 years to achieve.

And then there are those government lawyers, acting on the instructions of the government Toews represents. Waves of female RCMP officers -- active and retired -- have been coming forward with accusations of gender bias within the service, citing everything from sexual harassment, which gets most of the headlines, to more prevalent problems involving lack of respect, bullying, lack of opportunities and foot-dragging within the complaints process.

One might expect the government to move quickly to at least settle the recent class action suit that has been filed by law firms working out of Vancouver and Thunder Bay. When there is an acknowledged pattern of wrongdoing and if claims are reasonable, these kinds of suits generally get settled through negotiation, both to avoid excessive legal costs, embarrassment and ill will.

But the federal government has shown no signs of wanting to settle the class action suit out of court, and the approach of justice department lawyers to individual suits doesn't arouse optimism that the government is in any hurry to bring closure for women who have been victimized by decades of discrimination and abuse.

Other police services don't have lawsuit after lawsuit popping up in the news on a regular basis. So if you were a woman who wanted to be a police officer, and these festering suits kept reminding you that the federal government remains more confrontational than apologetic about the RCMP's misogynist atmosphere, would you set your sites on joining the Mounties? Or would you turn to police services that have shown respect for their female employees.

Take the case of Corporal Catherine Galliford. Cpl. Galliford, a police spokeswoman who was trusted enough to handle the Air India and Robert Picton cases, has filed suit against the RCMP and five male RCMP officers, who have denied her allegations. Denial is one thing. But the government statements of defence went out of their way to depict her as a liar and a drunk who should have filed suit two decades ago if she had really been abused.

Tough and nasty words aren't what the RCMP needs right now if it really intends to redress and bring an end to the pattern of gender abuse that has obviously been present in its workplace. It will be interesting to see the statements of defence against three other women who filed lawsuits after Galliford went public: Const. Susan Gastaldo (alleged sexual assault); Const. Karen Katz (alleged harassment, sexual assault, widespread abuse); and Cpl. Elisabeth Mary Couture (alleged harassment and intimidation).

Then there is Const. Janet Merlo, who has filed a lawsuit alleging sexist comments, sexual pranks and derogatory remarks while trying to perform her duties. Her lawyer suggests many other former and current officers will be joining the lawsuit.

Dozens? Maybe a lot more. Her Vancouver lawyer said a year ago that roughly 200 had already called his office with allegations of abuse.

Both Toews and Paulson have acknowleged that there has been a persistent pattern of gender abuse within the RCMP, and both have committed themselves to make amends and put an end to it. One can see fighting a particular lawsuit if the charges against male officers are clearly false. But are all suits going to be fought with the ferocity evident in the Galliford case? Are hundreds of women who have the guts to come forward and challenge male domination at the RCMP going to have their integrity questioned, over and over again?

Why would the government not move to negotiate a settlement to the class action suit, when their lawyers have said that most of the women who have signed up are more interested in apologies and genuine efforts to include them in fashioning a plan for reform than they are in large cash settlements.

Even if significant amounts of cash end up being paid out in a settlement, isn't that better than an expensive court battle plus the huge damage to the RCMP's reputation as the evidence hits the news wires?

This isn't a decision for Paulson. This is a policy matter to be dealt with by Stephen Harper and Vic Toews. Paulson has already hurried to bring forward the "Gender and Respect Action Plan" after Toews demanded it. The plan has some good in it, to be sure, but it is a top-down directive from two males -- Toews and Paulson. The women who have been bullied for so long deserve to be active participants in the reform process, whether they are still serving or retired.

What they don't deserve, after being treated as lesser beings for so long, is to be dealt with as enemies of the RCMP. In fact, by bringing this huge problem to light, they are friends of the RCMP's future.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 10, 2013.

(Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca)

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