Janet Merlo of Carbonear received her letter of acceptance to the RCMP on Christmas Eve in 1990. Twenty years later, she left the force, citing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
On a form filled out at the time of her exit — as she recounts in a new book being released this week — the nature of her work environment was front and centre.
“The RCMP is 100 years behind in its treatment of women,” she stated. “Sexual harassment is rampant. There is no accountability other than to quietly transfer the offending members and return results of investigations to those who speak out as ‘unfounded.’”
Since her departure from the force in 2010, Merlo — who was based in Nanaimo, B.C. — has gone public with her personal story of harassment at the hands of select colleagues and superiors within the force.
Her claims have not been proven in court. She is currently seeking to have her case certified as a class-action lawsuit, with her lawyers saying hundreds of other female police officers have come forward with claims.
Merlo’s book — “No One To Tell: Breaking My Silence on Life in the RCMP” — was written in consultation with lawyers as well as publishing staff at Breakwater Books.
In the text, she notes, “names have been omitted and some details smudged to obscure identities for legal reasons.”
However, she writes, she kept notebooks throughout her career, allowing her to detail what she says are specific instances of harassment and her own reactions at the time.
Writing and speaking out
Of one encounter, she writes, “He held my entire career in the fleshy palm of that hand, so I clamped my mouth shut, again, and I ducked around him. But I know my face registered my disgust.”
Speaking with The Telegram Tuesday, she said the book is titled “No One To Tell” because of how she felt at the time — there was no one to tell who would respond appropriately.
“We had all talked about it amongst ourselves over the years — whether it was in the locker room, or over coffee, or whatever. We talked about what was happening on that day with a certain person, or what was happening in the bigger scope of the office or the RCMP in general,” she said of incidents of harassment towards female officers.
She said complaints to superiors went unaddressed.
Then, after she left the force, a news story broke involving Cpl. Catherine Galliford, who graduated with Merlo from RCMP training and was in front of the cameras on high-profile cases, including the Air India disaster and the trial of Robert Pickton in British Columbia.
Galliford had come out publicly with claims of sexual harassment inside the RCMP. Her allegations, in interviews and now in a legal case filed in the spring of 2012, have yet to be proven in court.
“It wasn’t until I saw her on the TV, so broken and in the state that she was, that it prompted me to contact the CBC and that’s when it began for me, too, because I had kind of put it away and left it behind me, up to that point,” Merlo said.
“I have no regrets in going public because, at the end of the day, that’s the only avenue we had left, was to take it outside the organization and go to the public.”
Life of a cop
“I would like to have seen some acknowledgement of (the problem) and a conversation as to what I thought could begin to make a difference, and an openness, where I could invite the other girls, who I knew were going through it as well,” she said, when asked how she believes her complaints should have been handled.
“As a group we could have spoke to somebody, and have them hear just what our issues were, and listen to us, and acknowledge it at the time and deal with it at the time, rather than let it fester into what it’s become today.”
Aside from the topic of harassment, her book discusses the challenges of life as a front-line police officer.
“There were so many sudden deaths it’s hard to keep them straight,” she writes. “Heart attacks, accidents, suicides. A lot of suicides, and every one of them unique and unfathomable. One man shot himself — whether in frustration or exhaustion — after his building renos failed inspection.”
Walking through the challenges in her working life, she acknowledges it was difficult to not take things home. She dedicated her book to her two daughters and ex-husband, who she says suffered through her experiences with her.
“I want (the book) to be an agent of change,” she said, pointing to a hope for both a better understanding of day-to-day police work and, in detailing her experiences with workplace harassment, a push across Canada for more respectful workplaces.
The RCMP is not commenting directly on Merlo’s statements, her case or the new book.
However, the RCMP’s national respectful workplace co-ordinator, Angela Workman-Stark, spoke with The Telegram Tuesday evening on the topic of the police force’s general working environment.
Appointed in late March, Workman-Stark said her duties have included overseeing the implementation of the RCMP’s “general respect action plan.” The plan includes taking a close look at how to develop and maintain a respectful workplace — one that’s transparent, with open lines of communication and inclusiveness, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
Over the last several months, she said, there have been discussions with RCMP members past and present. The goal has been to better understand issues and their root causes, to effectively bring in change for the future.
“Not that we’re saying that we’re successful right now, but we’re certainly moving the marker,” she said.
“Where we really looked at, in terms of moving forward, is we know we need to create a sort of environment where employees are comfortable speaking up, so there are reporting mechanisms in place where there are workplace issues, there are mechanisms in place where individuals can work through resolving conflict before it blows up into something else, support mechanisms in place where individuals and employees can speak to their peers about issues that are happening moving forward.”
Workman-Stark said an online respectful workplace training course will be launched soon.
The RCMP, through both lawyers and staff at the highest levels, has repeatedly said harassment of any kind is not tolerated within the federal police force.