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After a decade of grappling with sexual harassment and bullying, is the RCMP ready to turn the page?

Click to play video '‘If you’re gagged you can’t talk about what needs to be talked about’' ‘If you’re gagged you can’t talk about what needs to be talked about’
Former Mountie Janet Merlo explains why she didn't sue the force for the money, she sued it to force a change she still has yet to see.

When Catherine Galliford went public in 2011 with allegations she’d been sexually harassed throughout her career in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Krista Carle was watching.

Emboldened by her colleague’s decision to speak out, Krista broke her own silence the very next night.

“When I spoke out against the harassment, it wasn’t taken seriously,” she said on national television. “I felt diminished and I felt re-victimized every time I told what happened to me.”

READ MORE: The cost of the RCMP’s ‘culture of dysfunction’ hits $220M and counting

Thousands of women have since recounted their trauma to Federal Court-appointed assessors as part of the Merlo-Davidson sexual harassment class action, which expects to finish adjudicating claims this year — a process that comes too late for Krista, who died by suicide in 2018. But as those assessors wrap up, another set will get to work adjudicating claims for the Tiller sexual harassment class action.

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The last decade has brought a parade of allegations and costly lawsuits against Canada’s national police force, and while some maintain a sense of optimism that things are finally getting better, others ⁠— Krista’s brother Kevin Carle included ⁠— remain skeptical that the force is even on the right track.

“Life just carries on,” Carle says.

“They say, ‘We’ve got the settlement now, we’ve got this class action lawsuit, we’ve done this, we’ve done that.’ But there are no fundamental changes to show.”

For all that the 2010s exposed some of the worst of the RCMP’s dysfunction, they also offered up roadmaps for fixing it.

Major changes would be required if the force was to overcome its own lack of will and capacity to fix pervasive bullying and harassment, according to a 2017 report from the RCMP’s Civilian Review and Complaints Commission that urged the government to introduce civilian oversight.

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Ultimately, the government introduced a civilian board last year that would provide advice, although it is not able to make binding decisions. And so for some, concerns remain.

“Time still needs to tell whether they’re looking forward at actually trying to prevent this from happening in the future,” says Jane O’Reilly, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in organizational behaviour and human resource management.

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Abuse of authority most serious issue facing RCMP

A spokesperson for the force says it’s implemented “the majority” of the recommendations it’s received pertaining to handling harassment complaints internally.

“This included centralizing complaint processing, updating and clarifying definitions, making information more accessible to employees, and implementing mandatory training,” said Cpl. Caroline Duval via email.

And yet, O’Reilly says, one thing that is clear is that cultural change won’t come from updated sexual harassment policies or training programs alone.

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“You need a leadership team at the very top who are wholeheartedly committed to making this happen and coming at the situation eyes wide open,” she says.

“If you have that, whether you have an advisory board or another sort of formal authority shouldn’t matter because you have a leadership team in place who wants it to happen.”

That can be tricky for an organization like the RCMP, O’Reilly says, because the force has so many layers of leadership across the country — “every single layer of leadership needs to be on board.”

READ MORE: RCMP civilian advisory board ramps up, but Wally Oppal stands down

Angela Bespflug is trying to stay optimistic.

Bespflug, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Tiller class action, says her office continues to be contacted by many women who want to submit a claim (once the judge signs off on the agreed settlement, she expects a “large influx” of additional claims). Despite that volume, she says she sees the fact that the RCMP agreed to settle the class action right away as a sign that the force is prioritizing change.

“I do genuinely believe that (Commissioner) Brenda Lucki is in the midst of changing the culture of the RCMP,” Bespflug says.

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“I know that will not happen overnight and realistically it’s not going to happen until we see a greater proportion of women within the force and women taking on management roles.”

There is no shortage of women Mounties who’ve been sexually harassed or bullied on the job who still want to fix the force, Carle says.

Friends and former colleagues of Krista still reach out to him, and Carle continues to meet with advocates and politicians in an attempt to get some form of compensation for Krista’s two young adult children, after she died before her Merlo-Davidson claim was processed.

“It’s important for everyone to remember that notwithstanding all of the injustice and suffering that she experienced in the RCMP, Krista really did maintain some optimism and some hope that the RCMP would regain its position in society as a credible, iconic organization.”

Click to play video 'Alice Clark on the sexual harassment and culture of bullying in the RCMP' Alice Clark on the sexual harassment and culture of bullying in the RCMP
Alice Clark on the sexual harassment and culture of bullying in the RCMP

And yet, Carle isn’t sure that some Mounties’ commitment to fixing their beloved force or that a civilian advisory board without binding authority is enough right now.

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He’s found himself thinking a lot lately about the magnitude of the problem.

Dec. 6, 2019, marked 30 years since the École Polytechnique massacre pushed violence against women into the headlines, which made him wonder about how little progress seems to have been made.

“You don’t have enough fingers on both hands and even your toes to count (all the reviews and studies of the force),” he says.

“Maybe it’s time for a public inquiry or even a royal commission on policing in Canada.”

To read Global News’ in-depth reporting on the issues facing the RCMP, go here.

Jane.Gerster@globalnews.ca