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The RCMP: a Royal Canadian disgrace

What will it take before someone fixes the iconic force?


 
A royal Canadian disgrace

Arlen Redekop photo/PNG

A sleep-deprived Catherine Galliford is running on adrenalin and ragged nerves after a wild week that saw the RCMP corporal rock her employer with claims that she was sexually harassed and bullied by senior officers, even as she served as the spokesperson for two of the biggest investigations in the force’s history. Galliford was calm and competent on camera as the public face of the RCMP’s investigations into the Air India bombings that claimed 329 lives, and serial murders committed by Robert Pickton on his Port Coquitlam pig farm. But while Galliford’s allegations of harassment reached as far as the House of Commons this week, one of her most explosive claims is only now being made public. Galliford says the rampant sexism within the ranks of the RCMP that ruined her health and career may also have contributed to the mismanagement of the Pickton murder investigation, at a cost of many lives.

Galliford said during an internal affairs meeting with RCMP staff this April that a senior officer “did nothing” with information that could have broken open the Pickton murders more than two years before his arrest, and attributed the flawed investigation to sexist attitudes and misogyny. In two extended interviews with Maclean’s this week, she said her examination of a file from the Coquitlam RCMP, with information dating as far back as 1997, showed the force had more than enough information by the late 1990s to obtain a warrant to search the Pickton property. Instead, surveillance on the farm was curtailed, indicative, she says, of the “indifference” that marked the investigation of the disappearance of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and a “misogynist” attitude toward women.

She said in October 2001 she read an RCMP file dealing with the Pickton farm as she briefed herself on her assignment with the missing women’s task force. “I had one of those ‘oh, no’ moments because I saw what was already on the file. There was enough evidence there for another ITO (information to obtain a search warrant),” she said. She said the file included evidence of guns on the site of the farm, as well as women’s clothing, government identification and an asthma inhaler later tied to one of Pickton’s victims. Yet, she said there was only a cursory attempt at surveillance, which was cut short because it was impossible to see activity at Pickton’s trailer, which was set back far from the road.

No further action was taken, in what she called an “appalling” lapse of judgment. “And during that time, Pickton went on a killing spree.” By some estimates, about 14 women disappeared between that period and February 2002, when a search warrant was executed on Pickton’s farm, leading to his arrest. Galliford said the information on illegal guns at the Pickton farm that precipitated that 2002 warrant was already in the old Coquitlam RCMP file. “They took all the information that was on the original file, the firearms file, and they pretended it was new information,” she said of her supervisors. If there was new evidence, as they claimed, she said she was never able to find out what it was. Nor did she get an explanation for the past inaction. Investigators eventually found the DNA of 33 women on the farm. Pickton was convicted of killing just six of the women, though he once bragged of killing 49.

Galliford said she expects to testify in the new year at the ongoing inquiry in Vancouver into the ineffectual investigations by the RCMP and Vancouver police into the murders. “When I testify at the missing women’s [inquiry] it’s going to be on behalf of the [dead] women’s families,” she told Maclean’s. “It’s not going to be on behalf of the RCMP.” She said she was unable to voice her concerns while the Pickton case was before the courts, or later, while she battled both the RCMP internal complaints process and her own stress-related demons. “The beauty of it now is I can actually talk about it.” Moreover, with her career in tatters, she said she has nothing left to lose.

RCMP Sgt. Rob Vermeulen, a spokesman for B.C.’s E Division headquarters, said he was not aware of Galliford’s claims that the force sat on search warrant information for Pickton. “It would be majorly inappropriate to comment about that,” Vermeulen said. “There’s an inquiry going now, so those questions I’m sure will be answered there.”

Sexism in the RCMP is not a new story, but as Galliford and other women like her speak up in growing numbers, it has become the leading symptom of the force’s ongoing dysfunction. Five years ago, after commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli resigned amid the Maher Arar affair, the government promised sweeping reforms, in part to confront a veritable plague of harassment cases. Task forces were struck, consultants summoned. For the first time in 133 years, the government went outside the organization to find it a leader.

Today, the most rudimentary fixes lie unrealized. The Mounties remain under the umbrella of the federal public service, an arrangement that hamstrings their ability to implement reform. The creation of an independent board suggested by a task force to oversee human resources decisions never came to pass. (The head of that panel, David Brown, famously described the RCMP’s paramilitary management structure as “horribly broken”.) Two federal bills that would have created a civilian complaints commission, while strengthening rules and discipline on workplace misconduct, died when Parliament dissolved for last spring’s election. “We’re not any further ahead,” concludes Cpl. Tori Cliffe, one of four sexual harassment complainants who took the force to court in 2003. “People are still defining their actions as appropriate when they certainly were not. Nothing has changed.”

Certainly the stream of lurid tales emanating from RCMP station houses shows no sign of abating. Last December, a constable in Parksville, B.C., admitted to having sex in a police van with a young woman who had joined him for a ride-along. Another officer, in Hamilton, Ont., admitted around the same time to sending vulgar emails to a mailroom intern, offering the young woman money to strip for him (she refused). Then, two months ago, a staff sergeant in Burnaby, B.C., was accused in a lawsuit of using his authority to coerce a female constable into a four-month sexual relationship.

The scandals tarnishing the RCMP are by no means limited to sexual harassment. Footage of a constable kicking a man in the face in Kelowna last January unleashed a wave of public anger in B.C., where nearly a third of the force’s officers are stationed. So did the findings of the Braidwood inquiry, that officers gave false testimony during the probe into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. Both incidents arose amid accusations that outgoing commissioner William Elliott—the outsider brought in to clean up the force—had been bullying and intimidating his own deputies. (This week the Conservative government was set to name Bob Paulson, a veteran RCMP officer and deputy commissioner, to the top job.)

Now, Galliford’s allegations have raised the stakes even higher. Within weeks, a woman who once personified progress within the organization—the firm-yet-sympathetic image of police authority—may well be describing from a witness box her belief that her bosses were laying bets on who would have sex with her. Or how the antediluvian attitudes of her superiors toward women compromise public safety. All of which calls into doubt the RCMP’s ability to do its job. If the force can’t safeguard the woman who speaks for it, or even protect the integrity of its most prominent criminal investigation, exactly what can it protect?

It’s not as though the force hasn’t had time to evolve. The first troop of female members graduated 36 years ago, in standard-issue high heels and pillbox hats instead of high-browns and Stetsons. Gender-related harassment was part of working life for women back then, says Bonnie Reilly Schmidt, who joined the force three years later and served for a decade. In the RCMP, she says, “there was everything from mild sexual comments or jokes about your breasts to overt sexual touching.” Shaking it off was part of proving you were tough enough to be a cop, adds Schmidt, who has written a dissertation on women Mounties for her Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University. But the taboo on harassment that has prevailed in most workplaces since the late 1980s never took root in the RCMP. Women either endured the jibes and gropes, seeking transfers to get away from offenders, or they left the force for good. Attrition rates of the women who joined between 1975 and 1985 were nearly double those of male officers.

Even now, as a brave few take the force to court, the abuses continue. “Every woman in the RCMP has experienced some form of harassment in her career,” says Schmidt, who has interviewed more than 20 female officers as part of her research. “Not all women had such severe experiences they had to go on medical leave. For some, it just rolled off their backs. But it depended on the environment. If you have three or four of five men who are abusive and you’re the only woman, that’s serious pressure.”

The psychological effects can be debilitating. Galliford has been off the job on full pay since 2007, after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the result, she said, of a barrage of advances from some superior officers and colleagues dating from about 2000. “I think I became the flavour of the month,” she says. “I don’t know if it was because I was on TV, but it almost felt like I was some kind of a bet.” She began to abuse alcohol, became physically ill at the thought of going to work and developed a phobia about stepping outside her Vancouver-area home. Since Galliford first spoke out in a CBC interview, several other current and former RCMP members have come forward to say their working lives were also plagued by sexist behaviour, unwanted advances, or harassment of a non-sexual nature.

Mike Webster, a B.C.-based psychologist with 35 years experience in police-related counselling, said he has been contacted by more than a dozen other RCMP members facing harassment issues since Galliford, an occasional client, went public. He blames the RCMP’s “bizarre” policy of unlimited sick time for contributing to the problem. The RCMP’s formal complaints process, the Division Staff Relations Representative Program, is a “toothless tiger” in the hip pocket of management, he says. Too often, contentious issues are left unresolved for years, driving disaffected members onto fully paid, indefinite sick leave, a move Webster calls “fiscally unsound and organizationally perplexing.”

No surprise, then, that filing a harassment complaint in the RCMP can mean career death. Barbara Dixon, a former homicide and major crimes investigator who worked out of several B.C. detachments, found that to her detriment. She endured constant comments from her direct superior and another team member “with the intention to discredit, demean and humiliate” her. “I think it was just scared little boys who didn’t like a female in their midst,” she says. In just one example, Dixon says her boss labelled a murder file she was working on—that of a mother in the sex trade who had a nine-year-old son—“Project E-Erectile.” She went over his head to change it, horrified that she would have had to carry that file name into the court case, and complained to a senior officer. “My life changed from that moment on,” she says in an interview from her home outside Calgary. “Once you file a complaint, you are forever tainted.” Instantly, she was given a poor performance review, after years of being considered a high flyer. Eventually, she transferred to E Division headquarters, where a supervisor was willing to take a chance on her. Still, the complaint flatlined her career prospects. She quit the force in May, ground down not by the murders and crimes she once investigated, but by some of the people she worked for.

Such accounts have left an indelible stain on the Mounties’ image. And even those with a grasp of its sprawling complexity shake their heads at the RCMP’s failure to get ahead of the damaging allegations. “There seems to be almost a regular diet of issues surfacing in the organization,” says David Brown, head of the 2007 task force on governance and culture within the RCMP. “With the proper management structure and focus, much of this would not have happened. They’re needless issues that can and should be rectified.”

Four years ago, Brown thought he had some answers. His task force recommended a board of management for the RCMP that would have liberated it from the interfering bureaucrats and politicians when it came to human resources matters. It also suggested a civilian oversight body to handle complaints against the Mounties—not just from the public but also from RCMP members. “Potentially, that kind of system could help to alleviate some of these [recent] problems,” he says.

The Harper government greeted the suggestions warmly, then left them to wither on the vine. A more modest bill to create a civilian commission to handle external complaints died on the Order Paper, and Mike Patton, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, says the government has not yet decided whether to reintroduce it. Another bill to strengthen the force’s policies on workplace conflict, grievances and discipline will be reintroduced, Patton says, but he doesn’t know when.

As for that “horribly broken” management structure, it too remains unchanged, to the dismay of would-be reformers. Last December, a panel struck to implement Brown’s recommendations cited the apparent office feud between commissioner Elliott and his deputies as proof of the need for independent oversight. “Now is the right time for the government to initiate legislative action,” the group urged in a report to Toews. But a year passed with no action, leaving critics like Robert Gordon, director of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University, with little hope for the RCMP’s future. “The bottom line is: the organization is sick,” says Gordon, a former cop, “and it doesn’t seem capable of healing itself. There’s got to be some kind of major change take place, if for no other reason than for the sake of the people who work for the RCMP.”

But the organization sails on, impervious. Critics, especially in B.C.—the scene of so many of the Mounties’ debacles and disasters, from the Dziekanski Taser death to a cascade of harassment allegations—are astounded that the RCMP survives in its current form. Even its most egregious self-inflicted errors have failed to scuttle negotiations to renew the 20-year provincial, territorial and municipal policing contracts the RCMP has in all regions but Ontario and Quebec.

Alberta and Saskatchewan broke ranks and signed renewal agreements earlier this year, and few doubt that the RCMP will lock up the rest of the provinces and territories, possibly within weeks. The federal government, which is playing hardball on the Mounties’ behalf, has imposed a Nov.30 deadline on contract negotiations and has threatened to pull the RCMP out of British Columbia by 2014 if it fails to reach a deal by the deadline. That would give B.C. just two years to cobble together a provincial police service, saddling it with massive start-up costs and leaving such major communities as Surrey, Burnaby and Richmond scrambling to form city police forces. The RCMP serves as the town cop in most communities outside of Vancouver, Victoria and a handful of other cities with local police departments.

That might explain why both B.C. and its municipalities are so forgiving of the RCMP. In September, B.C. Solicitor General Shirley Bond warned she would consider forming a provincial police force if the province and municipalities aren’t given greater say in containing the spiralling $900-million annual cost of RCMP service. But she soon toned down the rhetoric. Last week Bond said she doesn’t expect claims of sexual harassment to impact negotiations. “I have been reassured that there is a process in place to investigate any allegations,” she said of Galliford’s complaints, which have lingered without resolution for four years. Peter Fassbender, the mayor of the city of Langley and the municipal representative at the contract table, said RCMP harassment issues “need to be dealt with . . . but I’m not prepared to say the RCMP isn’t worth keeping.”

Truth is, says SFU’s Gordon, B.C. has missed an opportunity for a discussion on replacing the RCMP with more accountable policing alternatives. Kash Heed, a provincial Liberal MLA who served briefly as provincial solicitor general before leaving cabinet due to election campaign financing irregularities, is troubled that harassment complaints drag on without resolution. Yet he continues to receive anguished emails from women in the RCMP who are victims of bullying. “These harassment complaints are not from the ’70s,” says Heed, the former chief of West Vancouver’s police force. “These are recent complaints. These are complaints in the 21st century.”

So will the Mounties drag themselves into the 21st century? Or can Canadians look forward to a couple more decades of embarrassing revelations from their storied police service? When contacted by Maclean’s, an RCMP spokesman stressed the force’s “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual harassment, and noted an online awareness tutorial on the issue that members are required to complete. Last year the force appointed a “professional integrity officer,” to whom harassed officers can go if they are worried about trying to go through the chain of command.

Curiously, some of the harassment complainants voice similar notes of optimism, offering hope that their criticism leads to positive change—even if it costs them their careers. Krista Carle, who sued the force in 2003, alleging sexual assault by an undercover officer based in Calgary, enjoyed a surge of unaccustomed confidence last week watching Galliford challenge “the old boys’ club” on prime-time television. The following night on CBC, she did the same. “Unless you step up, there’s not going to be any change,” she says. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did. ”

Galliford has less faith in RCMP brass. But she did take heart when Toews rose this week in the Commons, pledging for RCMP members “a workplace free of harassment” and calling on Mounties to “carry out their duties with integrity and professionalism.” More than an acknowledgment of Galliford’s suffering, it was a commitment to change from the only authority with the power to make it happen. It might not come in time to salvage her career, and it’s certainly too late to remedy the mistakes of the Pickton investigation. But there’s still time to save the iconic institution whose uniform Galliford once proudly wore.


 

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