Wanna fix the RCMP? Then bring in a union

Another week, another RCMP scandal.

On Tuesday, Staff Sgt. Caroline O'Farrell, one of the first women to join the force's storied equestrian show, the Musical Ride, launched an $8-million lawsuit claiming that the RCMP did not properly investigate her allegations of relentless, repeated abuse.

In what sounds like juvenile, cruel bullying and assault that is commonly committed by the dumb kids in junior high, O'Farrell was subjected to painful and humiliating hazing rituals.

Her statement of claim states that she was repeatedly soaked with cold water and then dragged by her arms and legs face down through the horse stall shavings, which included horse manure and urine.

Other than moving her out of the Musical Ride detail, nothing happened to those who assaulted her. O'Farrell has named the Attorney General of Canada and 13 RCMP officers, including senior officers whom she claims continue to work for the RCMP today in senior positions, in the lawsuit. They got promotions, she got shipped off.

It's important to note that most RCMP officers are honourable and dedicated, but there are simply too many dishonourable members.

These ostensibly endless scandals seem to fall into four main categories:

* botched, incompetent investigations that allow criminals to commit or continue their crimes for too long (such as serial killer Willie Pickton and the Air India bombers);

* incompetent investigations that wrongly accuse innocent people (such as the wild horse case near Sundre and the Canmore daycare case);

* the unwarranted brutality by RCMP members against unarmed civilians (such as Robert Dziekanski, who was Tasered to death in Vancouver, and Buddy Tavares, a compliant, helpless brain-injured Kelowna man who was kicked in the face by RCMP officer Geoff Mantler); and

* the sexual harassment of female RCMP members by their colleagues and supervisors.

Better training and better recruitment criteria could help fix the first two problems; harsher penalties, including criminal charges and real time behind bars, might help the third; but perhaps the easiest problem to fix is the fourth — the sexual harassment and bullying of female officers, and sometimes even male officers, by Neanderthal supervisors and bully colleagues. In short, the solution to the toxic harassment issue within the RCMP can be summed up in one word: union.

Not being a big fan of unions, this solution is not an easy one to advocate for. But a high-ranking Calgary Police Service officer mentioned the solution to me many months ago, and as each case of harassment was revealed and I applied the union solution to it, the more it seemed to make sense.

Currently, RCMP officers being harassed on the job have no one to turn to without risking their own career rise, since case after case shows that it was often the officer's direct supervisor or someone even higher up the ranks who was the problem.

Consider Cpl. Catherine Galliford, who was the official spokesperson for the RCMP in B.C. during the Pickton investigation. She alleges that her bosses and superiors exposed themselves to her and extorted sex from her.

After Galliford, who suffers from post-traumatic stress, launched a lawsuit against the RCMP, a veritable flood of complaints and lawsuits followed.

O'Farrell is just one. More than 300 other former women RCMP officers are also suing the force in a class-action lawsuit. The lead plaintiff in that suit is Janet Merlo, who worked as an RCMP constable in Nanaimo, B.C., from 1991 to 2010. In her statement of claim, Merlo alleges she "was subject to persistent and ongoing gender-based discrimination and harassment by individual male members during the time she served as a constable."

For instance, the supervising corporal on Merlo's night shift watch commented to Wayne Merlo (who was then her boyfriend, but became her husband) "words to the effect 'Janet is perfect ... Janet is the right height because you can lay a six-pack of beer on her head while she gives you a blow job.'"

She had dildos placed in her work files and was berated for getting pregnant. Reached recently in Newfoundland, where she recently moved, Merlo says she believes a union would have solved many of her problems.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, not surprisingly, agrees that a union for the RCMP would solve many of the force's issues with regard to sexual assaults and harassment.

"A union would help civilize the workplace, and over time, would eliminate the problem," said McGowan.

"When people think of unions, they think first about the wages and benefits that we've been able to negotiate for our members, and certainly we're proud of those achievements, but one of the most important benefits that unions provide is access to a grievance procedure," said McGowan.

He points out that the union rep cannot be fired or reprimanded for taking on a complaint. As he notes, the most dysfunctional police service in the country is the RCMP, and it is the only one — as far as he knows — that does not have a union.

As the next RCMP harassment scandal is revealed, and the next, and the next, imagine what a codified grievance procedure would do. It would, over time, help rub off some of the layers of tarnish on the country's most iconic but discredited and scandalized police force.

Licia Corbella is a columnist and the editorial page editor. lcorbella@calgaryherald.com

The Calgary Herald, Saturday, May 25, 2013
Editorial byline: Licia Corbella


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