Senator Colin Kenny (Calgary Herald) – Sex gets the headlines. So when Canadians think about harassment at the RCMP, sexual harassment is the first thing that comes to mind. Particularly this week, as hundreds of women go to court with a class-action lawsuit against the force.
But the problem goes much deeper than that. When it comes to harassment at the RCMP, sex is only the tip of the iceberg.
Harassment at the RCMP rears its head in many other forms: bullying, exclusion, contempt, ridicule and retribution — to name a few.
Female members are prime targets, which isn’t exactly surprising, given the RCMP’s long-standing macho culture. Visible minorities get more than their unfair share of contempt as well. No surprise here either — the RCMP was a white man’s club for a long time.
Not that white men in the force are immune to harassment. That might come as more of a surprise, but partially because white males still constitute a sizable majority at the RCMP, there are probably more being treated as second-class citizens than there are females and visible minorities.
So what’s with all the unfairness? The nub of it is this: In any healthy institution, merit is at the heart of the pecking order. Merit may not win out on every occasion, human beings being the fallible creatures that we are. But at healthy institutions, success based on merit is the rule. Unfairness is the exception.
Experts who have studied the inner workings of the RCMP in recent years certainly haven’t described it as a healthy institution. It probably isn’t fair to describe incidents of unfairness as routine — most of the nearly 30,000 people employed by the RCMP treat each other with respect. But there are enough people who think of respect as a personality disorder to make unfairness a major issue. It is an issue that is going to require a more enlightened kind of leadership at all levels to fix.
Among RCMP members I have talked to, some think allegations of harassment have been overblown. That said, the majority of those I have queried believe the sexual allegations actually cloud the more widespread plague of exclusion, bullying and humiliation.
These people see the RCMP as an institution whose leaders have paid too little attention to fairness when it comes to promotions, discipline and who gets listened to when decisions within the organization are being made.
These people say the old boys club is still alive and kicking at the RCMP, even if its modern-day members include a sprinkling of females and minorities. As a result, there is perceived to be a class of individuals within the RCMP who get preferential status when those in power make arbitrary decisions, which is often.
How does a person qualify for the old boys club? Maybe you worked closely with someone in earlier years and “had his back” as he climbed the ladder — and got to a place where he could pull you up with him. Maybe you played hockey on the same team and fed him the puck — hockey is big at the RCMP.
Of course, loyalty doesn’t outweigh merit in a healthy institution, but that’s not the RCMP. There are systems (and sometimes unions) within healthy institutions that support fairness. But again, that’s not the RCMP. Company-paid staff relations officers are supposed to advance legitimate complaints, but not many of them are known for their dogged pursuit of justice.
Too many competitions aren’t open, which engenders the belief they are rigged. Too many people who have committed real offences — including sexual harassment — lose a few days’ pay. Sometimes they are moved to other divisions. Sometimes they even get promoted. Meanwhile, the grievance procedure can be a long, lonely vigil for the victim, too often violating the rules of confidentiality, too often accompanied by shunning instead of counselling. When punishment for the victim outweighs punishment for the offender, there’s something radically wrong.
When people who aren’t members of the club get out of line, they find themselves consigned to what is widely known as “the penalty box” — meaningless job, frozen smiles. Deputy commissioner Raf Souccar found out the hard way when he went public with complaints against then commissioner William Elliott. He says he quickly became a deputy commissioner without access, without a real job and without an office. He ended up resigning.
The old boys club couldn’t continue to hold sway if there were systems in place to prevent its members from exercising privilege. But the systems at the RCMP almost seem designed to perpetuate privilege and discourage dissent. There is a lack of faith in the ranks that people with power in the RCMP are capable of changing these systems, or even want to.
I have said many men are discriminated against at the RCMP, and that is true. But that does not excuse the amount of gender-based and colour-based discrimination that clearly persists within the force.
How serious is gender discrimination? Think of men bullying women — or showing overt contempt for women — simply because they are women and therefore deemed inherently to lack the qualities needed to be a tough cop.
Think of a supervisor telling that woman to “suck it up” when she has been treated unfairly — because “if you can’t take the heat, you shouldn’t be in the force.” Think of toilet humour based on gender: “What’s wrong, you got your period, sweetie?”
I have learned that the RCMP is conducting a number of group interviews with female members to try to determine how serious the issue of gender discrimination and harassment is within the force. That’s a start.
Unwanted sexual advances? They’re bad — terrible, really. But so is all this other crap that bubbles up from one common sinkhole — an institutional lack of respect. The level of unfairness within Canada’s national police service is bad for women, bad for men, bad for the RCMP, and bad for the quality of service it offers the Canadian public. Getting rid of rotten apples and even more rotten systems will take the kind of leadership — at all levels — that the RCMP has never seen before. Commissioner Bob Paulson says he’s up for the fight. If so, he had better get a lot of other Mounties on side. Because there’s no way he can roll this boulder up a mountain on his own.
Liberal Senator Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.