My name is Janet Merlo. In 1991 I was accepted into one of Canada’s most iconic institutions, the RCMP, to be a police officer. Like the thousands of others who joined, I had a fundamental desire to help people. I did that, and I loved it for 20 years.
When I left the RCMP in 2010, I didn’t go because I wanted to. I went after speaking out about the sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in the force. Today I’m considered “retired” but there’s more to the story than that.
During my basic training in Regina, I was –one of nine females in a troop of 32. In our drill (marching) sessions, the Corporal would often yell out to us, “What was the worst year in the history of the RCMP?”
We were expected to yell: “1974, Corporal!”
“Because that’s the first year women were allowed into the RCMP, Corporal!”
I was posted to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. On nightshifts, our supervisor had a naked, life-sized blow-up doll in his office. He asked the female officers to stand next to it when we entered to submit our paperwork. He wanted to compare our statures. That went on for years and everybody, management and otherwise, knew about his doll.
When I began dating Wayne Merlo, a prisoner guard in the cell block, one of the officers told him, “Janet’s nice. I did her.” My supervisor told Wayne that I was the perfect (short) height because “You can lay a case of beer on her head while she gives you a blow job.”
When I got pregnant with our first daughter, I was lectured about getting my priorities straight, cursed at and told that I had to decide whether I was going to have a career in the RCMP or pop out kids. I tolerated this behaviour for years, missing out on opportunities and courses because the men were given courses; the “girls” had to “earn them.” I was not prepared to “earn them” in their sense of the term.
In 2006 when I began to make my complaints more formal, the retaliation was in the form of a transfer to BC’s Lower Mainland, away from my family. I decided to fight the transfer and wrote to the commissioner of the RCMP in Ottawa. I told him about the harassment I had endured and only asked one thing from him—that he help me stay close to my husband and kids. I heard nothing back from him for 25 months.
By then the stress and anxiety was too much. I went in to work extra early because just going through the back door of the police station made me vomit, and I needed time to recover. Insomnia and anxiety had become a harsh reality for me and I was completely exhausted. My body was weak. My hair was falling out in clumps, and I was being forced away from my family. I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression in 2008. I left the force in 2010 when my doctor recommended a medical discharge for me, knowing that I couldn’t return to such a toxic workplace. By then my marriage had fallen apart and I was in the middle of a divorce.
After seeing my troopmate, Catherine Galliford, speak publicly about the harassment that she’d endured, I also spoke out for the first time in 2011. Until then all of our attempts to address the issues of sexual harassment within the force had failed.
In November 2011 we sought the advice of legal council to see if we had any recourse outside the force to hold them accountable. After those consultations, I was asked if I would be the representative plaintiff in a proposed class action law suit for gender-based harassment. I agreed. The case was filed in the BC Supreme Court on March 27, 2012. At that time, about 25 female officers had come forward to participate.
Commissioner Paulson reacted to the statement of claim, as well as to the lawsuits filed individually. He called our clams “outlandish.” He said he couldn’t help it if the “ambitions of some outweighed their abilities.”
Months later, he stated publicly that the RCMP was in the middle of a sexual harassment crisis. By then, the women involved numbered 150. It was impossible for the RCMP to deny there was a problem. After two years of litigation, the RCMP wanted to talk.
In October 2016, I attended an Ottawa press conference at which Commissioner Paulson publicly apologized for the years of harassment, offered a settlement with financial compensation beginning at $100 million dollars, and promised several change initiatives aimed at flushing out those who harass. As the representative plaintiff on the class action suit, I was there to hear the apology and represent 500 women. Today there are over 1,000 women who have registered to submit claims. We have secured financial compensation for women who would not have been able to litigate on their own.
I moved back to Newfoundland with my daughters in 2012. In 2013, Breakwater Books published my book, No One to Tell: Breaking my Silence on Life in the RCMP. Writing my book was difficult, yet therapeutic. It enabled me to tell my story to the public as well as recount some of the funny, crazy stories that police officers have to share.
On May 24, 2017, the settlement was signed off by a federal court judge in Toronto and my lawsuit successfully came to an end. I have spoken at conferences and universities across the country to help others find their voice and speak out about the harassment they endure. I am honoured to do so. Hopefully the RCMP will change as a result of these new initiatives outlined in the settlement and other organizations will learn from where the RCMP failed.