As an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force, Janet Merlo faced relentless sexual harassment. She spoke out — and became the face of a landmark class action suit against the force.
“Together the voices of women were strong enough to bring about a huge change.”
My name is Janet Merlo. In 1991, I was accepted into one of Canada’s most iconic institutions, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 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 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 prison guard in the cellblock, 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 behavior for years, missing out on opportunities and courses because the men were given courses, while 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 even 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 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 the RCMP accountable. After those consultations, I was asked if I would be the representative plaintiff in a proposed class action lawsuit 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 Bob Paulson called our claims “outlandish.” He said he couldn’t help it if the “ambitions of some outweighed their abilities.”
Months later, he changed his tune and stated publicly that the RCMP was in the middle of a sexual harassment crisis. By then, the women involved numbered 150, and 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.
When I reflect on the last few years, I feel a range of emotions from fear to happiness, insecurity to strength. I have always been a very shy person, so standing up and putting myself out there publicly was terrifying.
I faced backlash in the media and in the court of public opinion. On the news, I read comments people posted saying I was too ugly to have been sexually harassed. One person wrote, “I bet she wished she had been.” The collective opinion was that perhaps we shouldn’t have been police officers if we couldn’t “take a joke.”
But as more and more women came forward with their stories, the public’s response changed. The comments weren’t as cutting and weren’t as harsh. The public began to see that this was more than a workplace joke; this was a serious and toxic culture. Gradually, we earned the support of the public when the number of women speaking out went from about five of us to hundreds.
I decided to speak out further by publishing a book in 2013, No One to Tell: Breaking My Silence on Life in the RCMP. Writing my book was difficult, but it was also therapeutic. It enabled me to tell my story to the public as well as to recount some of the funny, crazy stories that police officers have to share.
In the end, together, the voices of women were strong enough to bring about a huge change: On May 24, 2017, a federal court judge in Toronto signed off on a settlement, and our lawsuit against the RCMP successfully came to an end.
Today, I have enormous pride for what we have accomplished for female police officers in Canada. Throughout the court process, I met men and women who stood by me and who will be lifelong friends. I learned that I wasn't alone in feeling a range of emotions, and I certainly wasn't alone in my experiences with harassment.
Now, every week I hear from one or two new women who have registered with the lawyers to tell their own stories. I am so proud of their courage to stand up.
In the struggle through the courts, I have learned that there are so many out there who truly care and who will be there for us every step of the way. Together, we have been strong enough to bring about a huge change. I hope that organizations around the country and around the world will learn from where the RCMP failed.
If this shy girl did this, anybody can. Find your voice, speak out. You will find there are many similar voices out there who have just been waiting for one person to speak and start the journey. You can start it, you can join it, and by doing so you will forever have that feeling that you changed things for the better.
Many days I still cry, and I'm so glad the hardest part is over. Every day I look forward to ways I can help others. There is still a lot of work to do. But I know that together, we can do anything.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller!Learn more.