‘We were ignored completely’: Review says RCMP leadership failed to act on harassment complaints

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WATCH: Global News has obtained an exclusive copy of the independent review of the RCMP's National Intelligence Coordination Centre under Cameron Ortis. David Akin joins us now with the latest on what that report contained. – Mar 17, 2021

The intelligence analysts at RCMP headquarters had scored a string of successes by the time Cameron Ortis became their boss in 2016, but then things went downhill.

After Ortis took over the RCMP’s National Intelligence Coordination Centre, staff said they faced harassment and inappropriate and demeaning comments, causing morale to plummet.

“It was a terrible, negative environment,” one of the analysts later told a consultant. “People left and people went ODS (off duty sick). It impacted them personally.”

Although they filed harassment complaints and grievances, and said they turned to senior RCMP management, including Commissioner Brenda Lucki, they said no one listened.

“We were ignored completely,” an analyst told the consultant, hired by the RCMP last year to conduct an independent review after Ortis was arrested for allegedly offering up police secrets, including to an unnamed foreign entity.

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Read more: Senior officer joins lawsuit alleging RCMP brass protected Cameron Ortis

The consultant’s May 2020 report has not been publicly released by the RCMP or the Liberal government, but a redacted copy was obtained by Global News, which reported on some of its contents last November.

The latest review to find fault with how the RCMP deals with workplace harassment, it called the grievance system “broken,” while the harassment complaints process was described as “not serving the RCMP well.”

But consultant Alphonse MacNeil placed most of the blame on a “failure of leadership” he said occurred “at many levels” and “reveals a need for the RCMP to consider how leaders are selected.”

“The employees took multiple steps to make their situation known and they were ignored until two to three years later,” wrote MacNeil, a former assistant commissioner who left the RCMP in 2014.

The RCMP said in a statement to Global News there was no place for harassment in the police force and it was working to address the report’s findings.

“A management action plan is in the final stages of consultation and approval,” said Cpl. Caroline Duval, an RCMP spokesperson.

Prof. Angela-Workman Stark, a former RCMP officer and expert on workplace issues. Global News

Although the federal government has vowed to tackle harassment in the RCMP following a series of damning reviews and lawsuits, the MacNeil report is a case study of the problem, an expert said.

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The 2017 report of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission highlighted similar gaps with harassment and leadership, said Prof. Angela Workman-Stark.

A former RCMP chief superintendent and now an associate dean at Athabasca University, where she specializes in workplace issues, Workman-Stark read the MacNeil report for Global News.

She said the report had once again pointed to an overly-bureaucratic harassment regime, a narrow definition of harassment, fear of reprisals and a lack of trust and confidence in the complaints system.

“People didn’t necessarily know how to navigate it; it was complex. So, I mean, it goes without saying that there needs to be some changes to that. And I think there are some underway, as I understand it,” she said.

Civilians have been brought in to key positions in human resources, a management advisory board has been set up and there is a greater focus on leadership development, she said.

“So I think there’s some good steps being made there.”

The MacNeil report describes the plight of a group of civilian intelligence analysts working in a highly-sensitive unit of the RCMP who said they tried repeatedly to warn their superiors about their boss, and were ignored until it was too late.

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Himself a civilian RCMP employee, Ortis was appointed director-general of the NICC in 2016, but things soon deteriorated, according to MacNeil, who interviewed 13 former staff and 46 others.

Despite what the consultant called “a series of proven and repeated NICC successes on major files,” the analysts were told they weren’t qualified for their jobs, openly questioned about why they were hired and blocked from advancement, the report said.

“Employees described a working environment … that left them feeling broken,” MacNeil wrote. “Over the course of time … employees who were dedicated to the force and had once loved their jobs were reduced to feeling insecure, belittled, humiliated and demeaned.”

“Many began considering employment external to the RCMP or elsewhere within the organization while others went off duty sick. Many described the impact on their health and wellness.”

According to the report, senior RCMP officials were told of the problems as early as July 2016, but were uninterested in dealing with “another harassment complaint.”

The problems at the NICC were soon widely known within the RCMP’s Federal Policing Criminal Operations branch, the report said, and the employees confronted Ortis themselves.

In a Jan. 13, 2017, letter to Ortis, they wrote that most of the analysts no longer saw the intelligence centre as a “respectful workplace consistent with the organization’s core values, and many analysts’ sense of value has been degraded,” according to the report.

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The report said they received no response, and a second letter, dated May 19, was copied to the deputy commissioner and assistant commissioner of federal policing, claiming conditions had worsened and analysts were leaving the unit.

One senior RCMP official, when briefed on the problems, thought that, as civilian employees, the analysts were “being too sensitive,” the review said.

“None of our concerns were addressed by the RCMP. If anything, people were punished for being vocal and sending the letter,” one analyst told MacNeil.

The senior officials named in the report could not be reached for comment.

Read more: RCMP’s ‘toxic’ culture is rampant through entire force, finds damning report

By the summer of 2017, many of the analysts had taken jobs elsewhere in the RCMP, “just to escape the NICC,” MacNeil wrote.

Meanwhile, grievances filed by NICC staff sat for more than three years, and the employees never received any update, leading them to conclude “they didn’t matter,” the report said.

Harassment complaints made by staff were rejected, which MacNeil said was the fate of the vast majority of such cases in the RCMP, while only an “extraordinarily low” 10 per cent were upheld.

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“This review determined that the percentage of founded complaints is unreasonably low and employees interviewed did not have faith in the system,” according to the report.

“The process can take approximately one year from the time of submitting the complaint to the receipt of the final investigation report. In most cases, the complainant and respondent continue to work together, and the matter can fester.”

An online Workplace Reporting System set up in 2013 to screen staff complaints, meanwhile, was not used by the analysts because they had never been told it existed, the report said.

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As their complaints floundered, the NICC employees tried mediation and, according to the report, a supervisor raised the matter repeatedly with senior RCMP brass.

“Unfortunately, they saw little or no progress in any of these attempts,” MacNeil wrote.

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The analysts felt it was partly a cultural issue, that because they were civilians members, or CMs, they “were seen as whiny and were disregarded,” one of them told MacNeil. “There is nobody for a CM to go to so they had to go up the chain of command and got no support at all.”

The report said once they became aware of the complaints, RCMP management could have met with NICC staff, or ordered a review or assessment. “Although these procedures were all potentially effective none of these options were considered,” MacNeil wrote.

Among the senior RCMP officials named in the report was Lucki. The report said a staff member sent the commissioner a lengthy email in August 2018 detailing allegations of harassment, bullying and discrimination.

Intelligence analyst Dayna Young claimed in a lawsuit that she sent the email after Ortis told her he did not like her, her work was “garbage” and that she was not qualified for her job.

Removed from her supervisory role by Ortis, Young filed grievance and harassment complaints, neither of which produced results. Young then emailed Lucki about how Ortis had treated her and its impact, according to her lawsuit.

The email was sent to an address Lucki had set up to seek input from employees about the modernization of the RCMP, MacNeil wrote. A month later, the email had not been opened, the report said.

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The report said the employee then sent a second email to another one of Lucki’s accounts. Lucki’s assistant responded that the commissioner was travelling and the message would be brought to her attention when she returned.

But the employee “never received a response from Commissioner Lucki or anyone representing Commissioner Lucki,” MacNeil wrote in the report.

Lucki was not among those listed in the report as having been interviewed for the review. Her assistant told MacNeil she did not recall the email.

Normally such matters would be forwarded to a deputy commissioner, the assistant told him.

“It would then be between the deputy commissioner and the commissioner as to how it would be handled,” MacNeil wrote.

The RCMP said Lucki had “ensured the matter was being looked into by Federal Policing. She is aware of Mr. MacNeil’s findings and is satisfied with the progress being made on the management action plan.”

“She offers no further comments on this issue,” said Cpl. Duval.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki after providing an update on the arrest of Cameron Ortis, RCMP Headquarters, Ottawa, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Wattie.

The NICC was set up in 2013 and staffed with intelligence specialists tasked with identifying emerging threats. But MacNeil said the unresolved workplace issues had been damaging.

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“The RCMP experienced an impact corporately in that analysts who were effective, productive employees of the RCMP with career aspirations in the intelligence field left to work in other areas where they had less experience and may not be as effective,” MacNeil wrote.

“Some employees considered leaving the RCMP and at least one did. Others were forced to take time off due to illness and some for extended periods. This left a gap that had to be filled by the organization and placed an even greater burden on employees managing the workload.”

“The core values of the RCMP and respectful workplace were violated potentially leading to another public embarrassment for the force and a negative mark on the organization should an employee of the NICC go public or engage in a lawsuit resulting from how they were treated.”

Last August, three NICC analysts filed a lawsuit alleging senior RCMP officials had protected Ortis from their complaints. Supt. Marie-Claude Arsenault joined the case as a plaintiff in February, saying she was also a target of his “harassing and abusive conduct.”

Their suit alleges that Ortis had “stolen and sold” their work, claiming RCMP internal investigators told them he had “systematically targeted them and attacked their careers as part of his larger plan to misappropriate their work and use it for personal gain.”

The government has not yet filed a response to the suit in court and the allegations have not been proven.

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The RCMP said it was “making continuous improvements to enhance leadership skills as well as the harassment resolution process.”

The harassment complaint intake process had been centralized, decision-makers were receiving legal training, and sexual harassment complaints had been “externalized,” Cpl. Duval said.

The number of civilian investigators was increased, information was made more accessible and mandatory employee training has been implemented, she said.

“The RCMP is committed on creating a more respectful, inclusive and diverse workplace in spite of high pressures on their personnel arising from the challenging nature of their work.”

Ortis has not yet gone to trial on eight counts under the Security of Information Act alleging he communicated “special operational information” to three individuals and attempted to do so to a fourth. He is also charged with breach of trust and computer-related fraud.

He was not interviewed as part of the independent review of the NICC. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the lawyer representing three of the analysts and Supt. Arsenault.

“I can’t describe the toll this took on my mental health,” one of the analysts told MacNeil, who quoted their comments in his report and said there was no reason to doubt their credibility.

“Some people have been damaged and some of the best and brightest have been sidelined and haven’t achieved their potential,” another said.

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“The RCMP has done nothing about this issue…Instead of change we had destroyed careers and mental health challenges,” yet another said.

“Everyone failed us.”

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