Sexual harassment ‘national crisis’

With focus on RCMP, expert panel highlights challenges, solutions

Sexual harassment ‘national crisis’
Nearly 1,000 female RCMP officers were awarded $100 million and an apology from the force after filing a class-action lawsuit in 2012. Sexual harassment remains a major issue in Canadian workplaces, according to an expert panel. Credit: Paul McKinnon (Shutterstock)

For Const. Janet Merlo, the harassment began in basic training. Having joined the RCMP in 1991, she found out officers were expected to say “1974” — the year women joined the force — when their drill corporal asked for the worst year in RCMP history.

Her experience only got worse, with supervisors forcing Merlo to stand beside life-size blow-up dolls for physical comparison, followed by harsh, unwarranted criticism when she was placed on light office duty during her first pregnancy. When Merlo would point out safety issues to her supervisor, she would be accused of being on her menstrual cycle.

Fearing their own careers would be stunted, colleagues were too afraid to speak up in her defence.

“Nobody said anything, basically,” said Merlo, speaking at the Human Rights and Accommodation Conference in Toronto in April.

When Merlo and a group of other RCMP women went public with harassment claims while still on the force, social media members retaliated, she said.

“Those comments, plus the ones we dealt with at work — they just bring you down and down and down until, finally, you just can’t deal with it anymore.”

After Merlo wrote the RCMP commissioner in 2007, her supervisors attempted to force her out of the division. The stress of leaving her husband and children behind, and managerial disdain, made Merlo physically sick. Suffering from depression and insomnia, her sick days total jumped considerably. She has since been diagnosed with PTSD.

It took Merlo years to get a response from the commissioner.

“After thoroughly investigating themselves, the RCMP came back in 2010 and said that my complaints were unfounded,” she said. “Nobody substantiated anything I said.”

After two decades of near-daily sexual harassment and bullying by her managers in Nanaimo, B.C., Merlo left the RCMP in 2010. In her exit letter, she expressed hope that the RCMP’s disgraceful treatment of women would one day become public knowledge.

Two years later, she launched a class action against her former employer.

Since then, the lawsuit has swelled to include nearly 1,000 female officers, and was settled last fall with a $100-million price tag and national apology from the RCMP commissioner.

On May 24, the federal court is expected to approve that agreement, she said.

While the majority of RCMP members she worked with were honourable, a small but potent minority was prone to harassment, said Merlo.

“That small group of people can affect the whole organization if it’s not dealt with,” she said. “Other organizations can learn from where the RCMP has failed.”

Expert panel weighs in

Recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment such as those involving the RCMP or former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi have raised social consciousness of the issue in Canada, specifically its pervasiveness within the workplace setting, according to an expert panel at the conference.

Members included employment lawyer Janice Rubin of Rubin Thomlinson in Toronto — who conducted the independent workplace investigation of Ghomeshi, Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, director general of the Canadian Armed Forces strategic response team on sexual misconduct, and Sandy Welsh, a University of Toronto sociology professor specializing in workplace harassment.

Too many employers choose to believe sexual harassment doesn’t occur at their establishment, said Rubin. Yet, 2014 research revealed 30 per cent of Canadian women have been subject to this type of harassment in the last two years.

“We think it’s been solved,” she said. “It’s 2017. Justin Trudeau is the prime minister. It’s all fabulous… But it’s not. It’s a persistent, profound workplace problem that has not gone away. We have a national crisis of sexual harassment where a large number of people are going to work and experiencing these workplace conditions.”

“Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination for women,” said Rubin. “It is a constant, serious impediment to full equality in the workplace — full stop. We are beginning, as a country, to come to an appreciation that sexual harassment isn’t just one bad apple. In many organizations, sadly to say, it is institutionalized, it is culturalized, and the whole bushel is toxic.”

Certain sectors are more susceptible to harassment — especially workplaces where there is gender imbalance, said Welsh.

“Sexual harassment is more likely to occur in places where there is a lot of interpersonal competition, a lot of competition for jobs, and places where there is job insecurity.”

Troubles lurk where male domination is deeply rooted as it often leads to a permissive bullying culture, said Bennett.

“As we’ve seen with police forces or with firefighting, with the military or RCMP, where there’s a feeling that people are unwelcome, that does set up for that situation,” she said.

Laissez-faire attitudes toward harassment aren’t helpful, said Bennett. Colleagues need to be corrected for inappropriate comments or derogatory jokes. Too many Canadians still think that type of behaviour is normal — “boys being boys.” Others don’t speak up because they blame themselves or believe they can solve the situation on their own.

Many victims of sexual harassment still do not report, said Welsh. Additionally, bystanders do not feel empowered to intervene. For many workers, problems of this nature occur during their first job or internship, and they choose not to report for fear of losing their position or not being believed.

“It shows the difficulty that people have coming forward and the things that we have to keep in mind when someone does come forward to report,” she said, noting a formal report isn’t always required to acknowledge harassment. “They may have said, ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘No’ in a lot of different ways.”

“What we need to be doing in our workplaces is having the kind of training where people learn how they can intervene,” said Welsh. “People don’t necessarily know what to do or how to stop a conversation.”

And as the workplace evolves, employers could soon be confronted with problems regarding remote workers, said Bennett.

“As people now telecommute and spend less time in the office, (employers) could be confronted with problems regarding remote workers,” she said. “You’re going to have that silent and anonymous type of harassment that is very insidious, but occurs out of sight of those who may be watching or patrolling.”

Challenges in implementing change

In the fall of 2016, the Ontario government passed Bill 132 — An Act to amend various statutes with respect to sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence and related matters.

It amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act, imposing additional obligations on employers with respect to harassment policies, programs and investigations, including the mandatory development of a workplace harassment program, an obligation for employers to protect workers with appropriate investigations, as well as the potential of an independent workplace harassment investigation at the employer’s expense.

Changing behaviour in cultures where harassment is deeply embedded is tough, said Bennett, and often requires a generational shift.

“Whenever you are faced with this dilemma, there is always a sense of urgency and immediacy in responses,” she said, noting public institutions are specifically held to a higher account. “There is a great deal of disgrace and disgust and people want an immediate reaction, so one of the challenges is managing the expectations of the response rate.”

“We are having to implement change to build the airplane while we’re flying it, and under a great deal of scrutiny and public pressure,” said Bennett.

Because many employees still don’t understand what is appropriate workplace behaviour versus what constitutes sexual harassment, the topic needs to be addressed under the category of violence in the workplace, using terminology people are familiar with, she said.

“This is not acceptable in any sector of society,” said Bennett. “Not all harassment is obvious. It can be very subtle and covert. So every employer, regardless of size, needs to look at every level of their organization and increase awareness. It can’t just be the leaders saying, ‘Stop.’ The first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem, and that is the most difficult.”

An all-encompassing system-type approach is required, rather than a one-and-done type of learning, she said. Awareness and understanding should be sought first, followed by a response plan, support plan and prevention mechanisms.

“The work is really hard and will take a long time,” said Bennett. “Policies alone don’t solve the problem. You need to work continuously on this.”

Confidentiality is critical, especially at smaller organizations, and companies should introduce a range of formal and informal options for reporting, she said. Workers need to be comfortable coming forward and should be required to share their stories a minimum amount of times. Expertise, experience, neutrality and confidentiality should all be top-of-mind.

As for employee training, employers need to realize they do not have the expertise in this field. Hiring trained facilitators should be a priority, said Bennett.

“It can’t simply be a checklist,” she said. “Your training program needs to be complemented with activities, toolkits and discussions.”

Companies can be lulled into a “false consciousness” due to a lack of formal complaints, said Rubin.

“Organizations, it seems to me, have too much confidence in people’s willingness to come forward and make a complaint,” she said. “Just because you’re not hearing about it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

More thoughtfulness and care should be put into the policies and processes surrounding this issue, including the creation of safe spaces where employees can talk in confidentiality to non-biased investigators, without fear of reprisal, she said.

As for the RCMP, the crisis reveals several major issues at the heart of its structure, said Merlo. A lack of accountability in internal investigations, paramilitary rank structure, decades of weak leadership and a lack of collective bargaining have led to systemic issues that will be hard to remedy.

“This is a generational thing that will take a long time to flush out,” she said. “(But) if those things can be addressed, then hopefully the force will begin to change.”

In the meantime, Merlo has returned to Newfoundland, where she continues to suffer from anxiety attacks and nightmares.

“No amount of money can ever begin to make up for the things that we have lost,” she said. “I am, however, truly honoured to be the one who could represent the women in this lawsuit and bring about a change for those who come behind me.”

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