Workplace Harassment in the RCMP and Civilian Oversight

by Rowan Hickie

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, mainstream awareness surrounding workplace harassment and bullying has expanded beyond the borders of Hollywood. One such workplace that has seen increased awareness of harassment has been the RCMP. While RCMP employees have been coming forward about the harassment and abuse they experienced in the workplace for many years, the past few years have seen not only an increase in the number of RCMP members coming forward and public awareness and interest in the issue, but also government and institutional response.

In 2016, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson issued a formal apology to female RCMP officers and civilian members who had experienced sexual harassment, abuse, bullying and gender-based discrimination during their time with the RCMP. This apology formed part of the settlement awarded to the class-action lawsuits brought by Ms. Merlo and Ms. Davidson against the RCMP for gender -based discrimination towards its female members. The settlement agreement also required the RCMP to adopt measures to change the culture of the RCMP and create a national advisory council and regional committees to deal with cases of gender-related harassment and intimidation in the RCMP. With the number of claimants for this settlement in the thousands, the long and severe history of workplace harassment within the RCMP is clearly illustrated. See: Merlo Davidson Settlement “History of Agreement” [Settlement].

With steps being taken to apologize and compensate for past abuses in the RCMP, steps are now being taken by the government to prevent future abuses from taking place.

In January of this year, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced the creation of a new civilian watchdog board for the RCMP following recommendations made in two 2017 reports into workplace harassment in the RCMP. This watchdog would be responsible for giving advice to the RCMP on ways to manage and modernize the force. In his announcement, Goodale said that the government has accepted all the reports’ recommendations, which include recommendations regarding the leadership, organization and efficiency of the RCMP in relation to harassment complaints and culture. See: CBC News “RCMP getting civilian watchdog after years of harassment allegations” [CBC News].

One of the reports that recommended the imposition of civilian overview, was conducted by the RCMP Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (the Commission). The Commission is similar to other police review boards in Canada, such as the Alberta Law Enforcement review Board, which is responsible for hearing and investigating complaints regarding Police conduct.

The Commission reviews and investigates complaints made by the public about the conduct of RCMP members and the RCMP’s handling of complaints. The Commission also initiates and conducts investigations into RCMP conduct when it is in the public interest to do so, conducts reviews of specific RCMP activities and reports their findings and recommendations. The Commission has published several reports regarding the issue of workplace harassment in the RCMP, examining the inner workings of the RCMP, the process and policies that deal with complaints and the issues surrounding them.

In 2017, the Commission released their “Report into Workplace Harassment in the RCMP” which examined how their previous recommendations regarding workplace harassment had been implemented and identified any lingering issues in the harassment complaint process. See: “Report into Workplace Harassment in the RCMP” [Report]

The Report conducted its review by examining “relevant legislation, regulations, and poli­cies that govern the handling of harassment complaints in the RCMP” as well as looking at the RCMP’s workplace harassment files from February 13, 2013 to February 4, 2016. (Report) The Commission in conducting their investigation and report, interviewed past and present employees and consulted with experts on human rights, policing organization and harassment investigation and jurisprudence.

The Report found that while some of their previous recommendations had been implemented, there were still severe issues in the way in which the RCMP dealt with harassment complaints. In particular, the Commission found that the RCMP’s “in-house” resolution of complaints and policies failed to capture and address many of the harassment complaints and created numerous obstacles for those complaints that were addressed.

The Report made nine findings regarding workplace harassment in the RCMP, which included a narrow definition of harassment, complex complaint processes, an emphasis on informal resolutions of harassment confrontations and poor training requirements for management positions. 

In the RCMP’s harassment policies, the Commission noted that the definition of harassment was unduly narrow. Under the RCMP policy, the definition of harassment identified six elements that were required for conduct to be considered harassment. This requirement is different from the definition of harassment utilized by most legislatures and human rights tribunals where two elements are required in order to consider conduct harassment. This narrow definition poses an issue as it limits the number of complaints that will be considered harassment under the RCMP policy, ultimately limiting the number of harassment complaints that are considered and heard by the RCMP harassment board.

The report also identified issues surrounding the complaint process itself, with RCMP members expressing that the harassment policies are complex and difficult to understand. The complexity of the process is yet another barrier to complaints being heard, as it can act as a deterrent to those who may have a harassment claim. Additionally, the RCMP’s harassment policies were found to be inaccessible for some RCMP members, such as those who are suspended or Off Duty Sick as the policies are only available on the RCMP intranet.

The Report also identified the issue of there being an expectation that informal resolutions take place in harassment claims. The RCMP policy emphasizes that it is the complainant’s responsibility to confront their harasser about their behaviour as soon as possible following the harassment incident. However, this policy of expecting informal resolutions is inappropriate as it glazes over the power imbalances that may exist between the complainant and their harasser, which in turn could further deter complainants from coming forward. The Report emphasizes that while informal resolutions should be an option, they should not be an expectation.

The Report further identifies issues in the leadership of the RCMP that hinder the examination and assessment of harassment claims. A lack of mandatory harassment prevention training for management and one-time online training for RCMP members results in an image of change and proactivity, but fails to provide staff with meaningful education and training that can result in real change.

These issues as well as other ones identified in the Report, were presented alongside recommendations made by the Commission. Recommendations included things such as the introduction of mandatory ongoing harassment training for management, a simplified definition of harassment and the introduction of civilian oversight of the RCMP process to increase accountability in the force.   

Goodale stated that an interim civilian watchdog board will be put in place before April 1 of this year, with the government planning to introduce legislation to make the board permanent (CBC News). This civilian watchdog marks an important first step in addressing the RCMP’s workplace harassment issues, however, there is still more work that needs to be done by both the government and RCMP to address the recommendations made by the Report and combat the epidemic of workplace harassment still present in the force.