Even to RCMP ears, the notion of Canada’s most powerful law-enforcement official feeling harassed by a wisecracking sergeant must have sounded absurd.
No surprise, then, that a witness for the Mounties tried on Tuesday to walk back a complaint made in the name of RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson against Sgt. Peter Merrifield—who is himself suing the force for alleged harassment—saying it should not have been processed as a harassment case.
Chief Supt. Michael O’Rielly noted that the complaint wasn’t launched by Paulson himself, but by a constable who heard the offending joke and took offence on the commissioner’s behalf.
“There’s no third-party complaint process for harassment,” O’Rielly testified at the civil trial into Merrifield’s claims, before admitting that he described the report himself as a “third-party harassment complaint” in internal communication.
“I suspect that’s where this process began to get confused,” O’Rielly said ruefully. “This process was miscommunicated.”
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It was a tough admission for O’Rielly to make. As director general of the RCMP’s workplace responsibility branch, he helped to write the force’s current policies and procedures on harassment, and now oversees the system that applies them. He’s regarded as a progressive influence within an organization struggling with the problem of workplace and sexual harassment. Yet he’s one of numerous officers whose thumbprints are on a complaint that wound up in the harassment pipeline, despite being plainly out of order.
The case stems from a remark Merrifield made during a June 24 training seminar in Newmarket, Ont. The topic was assessing the psychological states of suspects and informants, and the officer in charge encouraged participants to name people in charge of large organizations they thought showed psychopathic tendencies.
Witnesses said Merrifield went for a cheap laugh, calling out, “Paulson,” before adding: “I’m just joking. Just a joke.”
Paulson wasn’t there, but an officer who was, Const. Omar Ktabi, reported it as “a form of harassment,” arguing that “for Sgt. Merrifield to make a comment suggesting our commissioner is a psychopath is troubling, disrespectful and completely inappropriate.”
At some point—it’s not clear how—Paulson became the principal complainant in the case, and, in late October, Merrifield was notified he was accused of harassment. Two weeks ago, he was told that the commissioner wanted a written apology, to Paulson and everyone at the seminar, before he would informally resolve the matter.
But this whole issue may prove a bigger headache for Paulson than for Merrifield.
On Monday, the sergeant’s lawyers cited the complaint as retaliation for their client’s long-running case against the RCMP claiming workplace harassment, abuse of authority and cover-ups on the part of his senior officers dating back to 2005. They’re now asking the Superior Court of Ontario justice hearing Merrifield’s case, Mary Vallee, to recall Paulson to answer for the complaint, which they see as a desperate attempt to turn the tables on an officer whose case has made several senior officers look bad.
“If you’re going to treat every joke made about every member as a harassment issue,” said John Phillips, one of Merrifield’s lawyers, “you’re not going to have a force left.”
If he’s summoned, it would be Paulson’s second appearance at the trial, where, last winter, he faced awkward questions about why he ridiculed Merrifield’s complaints in front of a Senate standing committee in June 2013.
O’Rielly told court there is a way for third parties to report behaviour they deem harassing. But such reports, he said, are supposed to start out as workplace performance or misconduct complaints, which follow a different protocol.
When asked whether Paulson was told this one had been erroneously treated as a harassment issue, he took a breath and said, “Unfortunately, no.”