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Gender Harassment in One of the World’s Most Respected Police Forces

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Vancouver, BCIt’s not the demands of the job, but their fellow male officers that have pushed dozens, if not hundreds, of women in Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to the breaking point says lawyer Alexander Zaitzeff, who represents dozens of female Mounties in a massive class-action gender discrimination suit against the iconic Canadian police force, whose red scarlet tunic is recognized around the world.

For years, female officers complained to superiors about bullying, humiliating situations, verbal abuse and even sexual assault. Those complaints often fell on deaf ears and the head of the RCMP recently stated publicly that he believed many of the complaints were unjustified.

“I have personally interviewed many, many of the women in RCMP class action and I believe every one of them,” says Zaitzeff.

“They aren’t after the money. They want the public to know, they want exposure, they want change within the RCMP through training and education, and they want legislation with teeth to get at those old boys who protect each other, who mark these women and go after them.

“I have seen what is going on in the US military and it is very similar,” adds Zaitzeff.

Until 1974, the RCMP was a men-only police force. It now has about 4,000 female officers. According to documents filed, 292 women have joined the suit. The women come from every province and territory in Canada, with the majority of them located in the west coast province of British Columbia where the RCMP is responsible for police in rural areas and smaller communities like the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

Janet Merlo was a corporal with the RCMP in Nanaimo for 19 years. According to the affidavit filed, she was subjected to gender-based harassment almost from the day she began work. She was the constant subject of rumor and innuendo. She endured ongoing sexual-based humor in the office, her fellow officers misadvised her about extra pay she was entitled to, and she was belittled and taunted because of her gender. When Merlo complained, she was told to “forget about it” or “let it go.”

Complaints Merlo made were investigated internally and dismissed. Eventually Merlo began a downward emotional spiral, calling in sick, unable to face another day of workplace harassment.

Many of the women Zaitzeff represents now suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from being caught in the grip of a gender-biased environment on a daily basis.

An affidavit filed by an expert in the area of workplace harassment, Dr. Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, in the case of Merlo v. Canada, states that victims of gender-based discrimination often begin a downward slide they can’t control. “Gender based discrimination can directly diminish the target’s professional status and reputation by encouraging others to see the target in a demeaning light,” she writes.

“When I listen to these women, these stories are as terrible as any I have ever heard. Imagine that stuff going on and the Canadian public just becoming aware of it,” says Zaitzeff.

“We have proven cases!” says Zaitzeff, “proven cases where women have been transferred from detachment to detachment, from province to province and they have been marked women. The PTSD gets so bad that some of these women are afraid to walk into a RCMP detachment. Can you imagine working in an environment like that?”

Alexander (Sandy) Zaitzeff is a personal injury attorney with the firm of Watkins Law in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Watkins Law and the firm of Klein Lyons in Vancouver represent the women in the RCMP currently involved in this class-action suit. Zaitzeff is well-known for his landmark work representing victims and their families in the devastating air accident known as the Dryden Crash.

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