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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a beloved national icon, rocked by sexual abuse and harassment

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson — at a 2016 news conference with Janet Merlo, center, and Linda Davidson, right — apologized to women subject to sexual harassment and abuse. “You came to the RCMP wanting to personally contribute to your community and we failed you,” he said. “We hurt you. For that, I am truly sorry.”
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson — at a 2016 news conference with Janet Merlo, center, and Linda Davidson, right — apologized to women subject to sexual harassment and abuse. “You came to the RCMP wanting to personally contribute to your community and we failed you,” he said. “We hurt you. For that, I am truly sorry.” (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Silina Sargis showed up at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police academy in 2010 to start what she hoped would be her dream career. But soon, she says, a sergeant major began harassing and bullying her.

There was unwanted touching at a regimental dinner. During a drill, the sergeant major grabbed her hand and slapped her face with it repeatedly, bringing her to tears. On graduation day, she says, he held her uncomfortably close while her troop took photos, pressing his erection against her.

“I should have felt really proud and excited,” says Sargis, now 38. “Unfortunately, I felt really scared, ashamed and confused. My parents were so proud of me, and I couldn’t tell them what happened.”

Like the maple leaf and the moose, the Mountie with the scarlet tunic and the wide-brimmed Stetson is one of the most widely recognized and beloved symbols of Canada. But now sexual misconduct allegations are rocking the institution.

Hundreds of women have come forward to describe the national police force as an old boys’ club, where men boorishly commented on women’s bodies and made unwanted advances. Women report finding sex toys left on their desks and pornographic images in their files. They say men exposed themselves, groped and raped them.

The RCMP has set aside $150 million to settle two class-action lawsuits over sexual misconduct — the first in 2016 with female officers, and now, with women who worked or volunteered for the agency in non-policing roles. Federal Judge Michael Phelan held a hearing on the settlement Thursday in Vancouver. He is expected to rule on whether to approve it within the next month.

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Women who experienced sexual harassment within the RCMP say they were frightened into silence. When they did complain, they say, they were ostracized or suffered retaliation.

Sargis had hoped the harassment at the academy in Regina, Saskatchewan, would stop once she arrived at her detachment in Richmond, British Columbia. But it continued. She says supervisors dismissed her complaints, warning that whistleblowers could see their career options limited. Sargis sued the RCMP over a workplace accident in 2015; deemed unable to work after the all-terrain vehicle crash, she was discharged last year.

When Sherry Lee Benson-Podolchuk spoke out in 1991 about harassment and bullying as an RCMP constable in Saskatchewan, she says, she found a dead prairie chicken, dripping blood, in her locker.

“This is a threat,” she recalls thinking. “I’m in danger here.”

Janet Merlo, the lead plaintiff in the first class-action suit, says she suffered near-daily sexual harassment as a constable in British Columbia. In one incident, she says, a supervisor left a vacuum cleaner part on her desk and told her, “It’s long, black and thick, and you can take it home and have fun with it.”

“You think, ‘I’m going to work in a man’s world. Guys will be guys,’ ” says Merlo, 56. “You just put up and shut up.”

She filed a complaint in 2007 — a decision she calls “career suicide.” The perpetrator was protected, she said, and she was scheduled for transfer far from her family.

The settlements cover claims dating to 1974, when women were first permitted to join the RCMP. More than 3,100 applied for the 2016 class-action fund — three times the number expected. But that might represent just a fraction of the complaints. The true number might never be known publicly, because some are settled out of court and subject to nondisclosure agreements.

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Attorney Angela Bespflug, who represents two of the three lead plaintiffs in the current action, says she has been contacted by more than 500 potential class members. If the court approves the settlement, she says, she expects the number of class members to double.

“There’s a bundle of emotions,” Bespflug says. “While there is joy and hope and a sense of relief in recognizing that these issues happen to other women, counterbalancing that are the memories that are brought to life.”

Lead plaintiff Mary Ellen Copland, a municipal employee in British Columbia, said in an affidavit that when she complained that a colleague had forcibly kissed her, an inspector told her she should have just slapped him.

Women say they left careers over the toll on their health and relationships.

Greg Passey, a Vancouver psychiatrist, treats male and female RCMP employees with post-traumatic stress disorder. His uncle and father-in-law both worked for the force.

“I had no idea how bad these issues were until I started assessing and treating women,” Passey says. “The level of abuse of power is absolutely astounding and disheartening. One of our iconic pieces of Canadian history is rotten to the core.”

With roots in the 1873 founding of the North-West Mounted Police, the RCMP has been romanticized in Canada and beyond. It’s also powerful — it’s not only the national police force but also provides provincial and municipal policing across large swaths of the country. While it can be argued that the Mounties of real life never bore much resemblance to those of popular culture, the force zealously protects its image.

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The RCMP has attempted to address sexual misconduct. In 2014, it streamlined its complaints process, and a new law beefed up the commissioner’s ability to fire employees.

In 2016, then-RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson apologized to women. His successor, Brenda Lucki, the first woman to permanently head the force, has promised to end harassment and discrimination.

“I deeply regret that these women were subject to inappropriate behavior in our workplace and apologize for the pain caused to them and their families,” she said in July.

The RCMP agreed in 2016 to 20 “change initiatives” to eliminate harassment. Gail Johnson, the agency’s chief human resources officer, said most are in place.

Whether they’ll spur a cultural transformation is another matter. In 2017, a civilian panel took aim at the RCMP’s “dysfunctional organizational culture.”

“In the past decade alone, over 15 reviews have been conducted of the RCMP and its organizational culture, identifying a dizzying array of more than 200 recommendations for reform,” the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission reported. “Unfortunately, few have been implemented.”

This year, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced a new civilian advisory board to advise Lucki on harassment and bullying.

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Merlo, who has written a book on her experiences, says the force’s inability to implement recommendations in the past makes her skeptical.

But Angela Workman-Stark, a former RCMP chief superintendent, calls it “a great step forward and quite helpful.” She doesn’t believe the RCMP’s workplace culture is much different from that of other police forces.

“It’s difficult because it happened to such an icon in Canada,” says Workman-Stark, a professor of organizational behavior at Athabasca University in Alberta.

Michael Dawson, a professor of history at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, says the RCMP’s mythology has functioned as a “protective coating,” preventing people from asking “serious, probing questions.”

For Sargis, that coating has been corroded. She says she has PTSD from her experiences in the RCMP. She keeps her graduation book and diploma in storage. She left her uniform in her locker. She never got her badge encased as a keepsake.

“It’s too much of a trigger,” she says.

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