VANCOUVER — At age 22, Quebec native Joanne Mayer was greeted at her first RCMP posting in Gibsons, B.C., with a handshake and a blunt statement from the sergeant: “We don’t think women should be in the force, and especially not French-speaking ones.”
Mayer said that along with her regular duties, she spent over two years doing “sexist” chores including making coffee, ensuring there was an ample supply of cream and sugar, and cleaning police cruisers.
A quarter-century later, Mayer has joined hundreds of other former and current RCMP members hoping for justice over alleged gender discrimination, bullying and harassment with a potential class-action lawsuit.
A five-day hearing to determine certification of a class-action proceeding involving 362 women is set to begin Monday in B.C. Supreme Court.
“I didn’t tell my parents or anybody what had happened to me. I went through this all on my own,” said Mayer, who plans to fly to Vancouver from Ottawa along with several other women expected to attend from across Canada.
Mayer was emboldened to come forward after Janet Merlo, a 19-year RCMP veteran from Nanaimo, B.C., went public with her own experience of ongoing discrimination before launching the suit in March 2012.
“I was like, ‘Well, I went through that, too. Maybe it wasn’t my fault,'” Mayer said. “I had blocked it out, to be honest. I didn’t realize what was happening to me at the time and I was too scared to speak out.”
In the three years it has taken to wind through the legal system, a law firm championing the case has canvassed more than 100 women with a detailed questionnaire, said lawyer David Klein.
“They share an unfortunate common bond,” he said. “They were subjected to systemic harassment, bullying and discrimination over a long period of time. The bond they share is the consequence of that treatment.”
Klein said he will introduce the case and present key evidence from Merlo’s affidavit and an expert he calls the leading authority on gender harassment and discrimination.
He will also explain why it’s crucial to tackle the allegations en mass with a class action rather than require individual women to file hundreds of lawsuits on their own.
“Reality is, some of the claims are too small to warrant individual litigation,” he said.
“The only way many of these women will have access to the civil justice system is if it is done through a class action.”
None of the claims have been tested in court.
Klein said that while he believes the RCMP has begun taking steps to reduce harassment against women, people who have made allegations are still being challenged on every statement they make.
“It’s time for the government of Canada to step in and direct the RCMP to take these claims seriously.”
Jeremy Laurin, a spokesman for the federal Public Safety Department, said he couldn’t comment while the case is before the courts but that the government takes issues of discrimination and sexual harassment “very seriously.
“All RCMP members and employees should feel safe and respected amongst their colleagues and superiors,” he said in a statement. “Canadians have the right to expect professional and exemplary conduct from their national police service.”
For Mayer, who had dreamed of being a police officer since she was a little girl, settlement is the only way to bring closure because she felt forced to switch careers.
“My hope is that the force will recognize that it has affected a lot of female members,” she said. “I wouldn’t want this to happen to new members going in, new females. If this is truly what they want to do they should be able to do the same job as anyone else.”
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Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press