Cheryl Tiller was at a retirement party for an RCMP corporal in March 2007 when she says she was sexually harassed.
Tiller, who was working as a stenographer at the time — an RCMP job in every sense but one, since the city of Yorkton signed her paycheque — had gone up to shake the hand of the retiring corporal. She alleges another officer, a sergeant, put his hand between her legs at the knee, moving his hand up along her crotch and behind to her buttocks before flicking her jacket.
“Everybody saw it,” Tiller recounted from her home in Yorkton, where she still works with the RCMP. At the time, she wanted to throw up, to climb into a hole and disappear. It would take Tiller years to realize she wasn’t the only person with similar allegations of sexual harassment.
Now, three years after the RCMP settled a sexual harassment lawsuit from its women members for $100 million, it’s doing the same for women who worked with the RCMP as volunteers or municipal and contract employees.
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On July 5, the Federal Court of Canada certified the volunteer, municipal and contract worker class action for the purpose of an estimated $100-million settlement. The parties hope the court will sign off on the agreement in the fall. A hearing has been set for Oct. 17.
“Harassment and discrimination do not have a place in our organization,” said Brenda Lucki, commissioner of the RCMP, said in a statement. “On behalf of the RCMP, I would like to thank the representative plaintiffs, Cheryl Tiller, Mary Ellen Copland and Dayna Roach for their courage in coming forward. I deeply regret that these women were subject to inappropriate behavior in our workplace, and apologize for the pain caused to them and their families.”
Tiller is the lead plaintiff.
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“I’m sure there are many women out there, even from years prior to mine, who suffered the abuse, the harassment, the intimidation,” she says.
“I want them to know it’s OK to talk about it. … We can’t move forward unless we go through it.”
In 2016, former Commissioner Bob Paulson announced a settlement had been reached as the result of two sexual harassment class-action lawsuits against the RCMP. He also promised “the fist of God will fall” on Mounties who perpetuate sexual harassment.
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But his apology, and that settlement, only covered women within the force, not those like Tiller, who worked adjacent to it. “Why do we not qualify?” Tiller wrote to the lawyers handling that settlement.
“It felt like we didn’t matter,” she says.
“If we didn’t wear the RCMP badge or we didn’t get paid by the RCMP, we didn’t matter.”
When Tiller approached Klein Lawyers LLP in Vancouver (the same firm that handled the 2016 settlement), they took up the case.
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“This settlement is an acknowledgement of the pain experienced by women who were subjected to harassment and sexual assault while working or volunteering with the RCMP,” said Angela Bespflug, lawyer for the plaintiffs, in a statement.
“No amount of money can compensate these women for the harms that they’ve endured, but the settlement gives a voice to their experiences. The settlement is a reminder to these women that they’re not alone and, we hope, will give these women the closure they deserve,” Bespflug said.
“My vision for the RCMP is to ensure we are fully trusted by the communities we serve, and admired for the way we treat people,” Commissioner Lucki said. “This agreement is a further commitment from the RCMP to make right what we can, be the organization we need to be for our employees and Canadians.”
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The allegations that formed the backbone of the class action range from sexual comments to rape. In Tiller’s case, she says a Mountie who witnessed the harassment reported it to police.
The prosecutor left it to the RCMP to handle, and although the sergeant was moved to a nearby detachment, Tiller alleges he tried to interfere in her job, once returning and cornering her in the office while she was getting brochures.
“I can remember the bile in my throat,” she says. “I gave him the brochures and I ran.”
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Later, when the RCMP’s internal investigation revealed other women had also claimed to have been victimized by this sergeant, Tiller says she finally felt galvanized to fight back. Ultimately, the sergeant was offered the choice to be demoted or retired, she says, and he chose to retire.
The damage had been done.
“I’m normally very outgoing, bubbly. … I fell into a deep depression,” Tiller says. “To this day I continue to see a counsellor.”
The settlement agreement is tiered, which means women will receive between $10,000 and $220,000, depending on the claim.
The settlement is expected to incorporate around 41,000 women, whose work with the force dates back to 1974 (the year women were first welcomed into the RCMP) — although the number of women who can participate isn’t capped, and neither is the total payout. The $100-million settlement figure is just an estimate and roughly 1,500 claims are expected.
This is not the RCMP’s first payout, nor is it even the only class action the force is currently facing.
Yorkton is a small city in Saskatchewan, with a little more than 16,000 residents. That makes speaking up a scary prospect, Tiller says.
“I was ‘that girl’ when this all started and I am going to be ‘that girl’ again,” she says.
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She’s worried for her family and she’s worried for her job in victim’s services.
“I don’t work for the RCMP but my organization is RCMP-based. I work in an RCMP building. What kind of retaliation or negative feedback am I going to receive?”
Still, Tiller says, she’s ready for whatever is next.
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“I respect the RCMP and the organization. It’s one of Canada’s foremost icons. I do believe that there is still work — much work — to be done, to change the way people can be treated,” she says.
“Let’s end this era and start a new one.”
Tiller’s words echo those of Janet Merlo, one of the two lead plaintiffs in the 2016 sexual harassment settlement.
At the time, Merlo said, “It’s a good day for the RCMP. It’s a turning point. I have total faith that this is the beginning of a new era, hopefully a better era.”
Two years later, Merlo wasn’t quite so optimistic in comments that referenced Paulson’s promise that “the fist of God will fall.”
“There’s a lot of people waiting for that fist to show up,” Merlo said. “Talk is cheap if you’re not going to follow through and do it.”
— with files from Rumina Daya
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