Landmark deal in RCMP sexual harassment class action wins court approval

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, left, inspects officers during a memorial for RCMP officers who died in the line of duty in Regina, Sask., on Sunday, September 13, 2015. Mark Taylor/ The Canadian Press

TORONTO – An unprecedented settlement that will pay up to $220,000 to women who were sexually harassed while working for the RCMP over the past 40 years has been approved by a Federal Court judge, who called the agreement fair and reasonable.

In a written decision, Judge Ann Marie McDonald called the settlement one that was in the women’s best interests, given that litigation might otherwise have dragged on for years with uncertain prospects as to an outcome.

“The proposed settlement has a number of features and benefits that extend beyond a strictly monetary compensation scheme and, as a result, the settlement agreement goes well beyond what the plaintiffs may have been awarded after a trial,” McDonald said.

“Considering the very personal and painful nature of the claims, the settlement process includes a non-adversarial claims process with numerous safeguards to protect the privacy of claimants.”

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The deal covers all women harassed while working for the RCMP, starting in September 1974 when the force first began taking female recruits. Many of the women would otherwise now have had no legal recourse because of the passage of time.

Each victim is eligible for a minimum of $10,000, with $220,000 going to those most egregiously harmed. In some cases, close relatives can receive a total of 10 per cent of a claimant’s reward.

While as many as 20,000 women are believed eligible for compensation, the lawyers involved estimate more than 1,000 claimants will receive about $89 million. The government has set aside $100 million for the payouts, even though there is no total cap.

McDonald praised the agreement for including a public RCMP apology to the women – already delivered by Commissioner Bob Paulson in October – along with “institutional change initiatives” aimed at eradicating gender-based harassment. Neither the RCMP nor the federal government explicitly admitted any wrongdoing.

READ MORE: Harassment, bullying in RCMP a ‘serious and persistent problem’

The judge also agreed the two law firms involved should get 15 per cent of the claims paid to victims. The lawyers had initially signed on for 33.3 per cent. They agreed to cut that in half because the government is also paying them $12 million.

Megan McPhee, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, expressed pride at the outcome of the lawsuit.

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“This is the first workplace gender-based harassment class action settlement in Canada,” McPhee said on Wednesday. “We’re hopeful that it will provide a model for people in other situations…where there has been harassment or deeply personal common injury.”

McDonald approved $15,000 in honoraria for two representative plaintiffs – Janet Merlo and Linda Davidson.

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“This included publicizing their personal account of the gender and sexual-orientation harassment which they endured within the RCMP,” McDonald said. “This has required the public reliving of painful events.”

In an interview Wednesday, Davidson, 58, now of Bracebridge, Ont., said she had to speak out when she realized her attempts at internal redress were going nowhere and that many other women were “very silent” about what they were enduring.

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At the same time, she said, it’s been a difficult path.

“My whole life has been exposed to every Canadian and American and anybody who wanted to read my most frail and intimate moments,” said Davidson, who started with the RCMP in 1985 and became one of the few women to become a commissioned officer. “It’s taken its toll. The toll has been horrific.”

Retired RCMP officer Linda Davidson (left) and her lawyer Megan McPhee. Davidson was a representative plaintiff in a class-action suit against the RCMP on behalf of sexually harassed female employees. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

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Now retired after a medical leave, Davidson said what kept her going have been the messages from other RCMP women thanking her for helping ensure they have been believed.

After a 60-day obligatory appeal period – the government consented to the settlement – women will have six months to make a claim for compensation.

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Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache, who will travel the country to interview claimants, will oversee the process.

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