Commissioner Bob Paulson appeared emotional as he apologized to anyone who had been the victim of bullying or harassment while in the force.
Paulson made the historic apology Thursday as he announced the settlement of two class-action lawsuits stemming from harassment that has cast a dark pall over the storied police force.
“To all the women, I stand humbly before you today and solemnly offer our sincere apology,” an emotional Paulson told a news conference in Ottawa.
“You came to the RCMP wanting to personally contribute to your community and we failed you. We hurt you. For that, I am truly sorry.”
Paulson said the settlement would provide financial compensation for the women and lead to resolution of potential class-action lawsuits brought forward by former RCMP members Janet Merlo and Linda Gillis Davidson.
The federal government has earmarked $100 million for payouts, but there is no cap on the overall compensation that could be awarded. The settlement is expected to cover hundreds of women who served in the national police force from Sept. 16, 1974, when the first female officers were sworn in, to the present day.
It also includes creation of a scholarship in honour of the RCMP's first female regular members as well as establishment of national and divisional advisory committees on gender, sexual orientation, harassment, equity and inclusivity. The national committee will issue a public annual report.
Paulson was joined at the news conference by Merlo and Davidson, as well as Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk.
“The impact this has had on those who have experienced this shameful conduct cannot – must not – be solely understood as an adverse workplace condition for which they must be compensated,” Paulson said.
“For many of our women this harassment has hurt them mentally and physically. It is has destroyed relationships and marriages, and even whole families have suffered as a result. Their very lives have been affected.”
Merlo took the podium after Paulson was finished, calling it “a great day for the RCMP” and thanking the commissioner on behalf of the other female members represented in the lawsuits.
“They just wanted it to be a better place to work,” Merlo said. “For them I'm really thankful that today finally arrived.”
She then embraced Paulson, who wiped tears from his eyes.
“I love my flag, I love my country and I loved my job – I left way too early,” added Davidson, who also extended her thanks to the commissioner.
“I will continue to stand up and right the wrongs if I can,” she said. “We are, we were and we always will be your greatest asset.”
The settlement likely marks the beginning of the end of a difficult episode in the force's history, one that has haunted Paulson's tenure as commissioner.
“Today's announcement ... closes the door on a deeply troubling and unfortunate period in the history of our national police force,” Goodale said. “It is an encouraging moment, demonstrating a deep desire on the part of all parties to move forward in a positive and constructive manner – starting immediately.''
Though neither of the two class actions has been certified, the settlement agreement will be submitted to the Federal Court for approval.
Former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache will independently review claims and supporting evidence in confidence and determine which of six levels of compensation apply. Bastarache will personally interview those who make serious claims of mistreatment.
The former judge will make payments directly to the women from funds transferred to his control. His decisions cannot be appealed by the RCMP or the recipients.
Merlo, whose proposed class-action suit was filed in British Columbia four years ago, has spoken of many instances of sexual harassment that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said Thursday the fight was about trying to “leave some kind of legacy of change, rather than just going away and fading into the sunset hurt and bitter.”
Davidson has told of unwanted sexual advances and repeated harassment during her 27-year career, which included a stint with the prime minister's protective detail. Her lawsuit was filed last year in Ontario Superior Court.
“It came to the point where I'd go to the detachment and I'd try to go to work and I couldn't,” she said after the news conference. “I would literally vomit into the bushes before I went into the building.”
The RCMP has streamlined its internal processes for addressing conflict, giving supervisors more power to deal with disputes promptly, but some critics fear that has opened the door to abuses.
Goodale has already asked the RCMP watchdog to revisit the broad issue of bullying and harassment within the force. The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP is looking at whether recommendations it made three years ago have been implemented.
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