The little court case that turned into a tire fire for the RCMP

Inside an Ontario courtroom, a seemingly inconsequential trial is getting bigger as the months roll by. So are its consequences.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Bob Paulson is the kind of cop who makes you sit up and listen. Bald as a bullet, deep of voice, the RCMP commissioner speaks with an air of finality that renders critics mute—and he’s rarely been more forceful than during a June 2013 appearance before the Senate standing committee on national security.

The subject was the RCMP’s desperate efforts to get a handle on harassment within its ranks, and previous testimony from Peter Merrifield, a sergeant who had sued the force alleging he’d been bullied, ostracized and subjected to empty misconduct investigations by officers above him. One of those commanders, Merrifield had testified, was himself caught in a “john sweep” by another police force, yet never disciplined—proof positive, he argued, the RCMP goes easier on commissioned officers accused of misconduct than on regular members.

Paulson answered with the force of a battering ram. “He’s suggesting bosses have all harassed him and are cavorting with prostitutes,” the commissioner scoffed, adding: “I cannot be continually defending against outlandish claims that have not been tested or established, yet are being put forward as though they are gospel and representative of the modern workplace experience of the RCMP.” Paulson went on to insinuate that Merrifield was mentally unstable, noting suggestively that the officer was “just back to work after a considerable time away.”

It was an unsparing takedown—the sort you’d unleash only if you knew an allegation to be false or unprovable. So, more than a few eyebrows rose last week when a civil trial into Merrifield’s claims heard not only that the john-sting story was true, but that Paulson was briefed about it days before he shot arrows into Merrifield’s reputation. In a cringeworthy appearance in Newmarket, Ont., Marc Proulx, a retired superintendent who once oversaw criminal intelligence operations across Ontario, confirmed that he’d been caught in London, Ont., trying to hire a female city police officer posing as a street prostitute—“ashamed as I am to admit it today.”

His testimony followed that of one of Paulson’s closest lieutenants, Assistant Commissioner Stephen White, who revealed that he’d discussed the episode with the commissioner exactly one week before Paulson made his appearance before the Senate committee. By then, White revealed, the Mounties had been sitting for 17 months on a London police report detailing the incident—a document they never disclosed through three years of pretrial litigation with Merrifield.

The entire saga has left Merrifield, still a serving Mountie, fuming. “The RCMP exists to gather evidence and provide it to the courts,” he said last week during a break in the trial. “But when it’s their actions in question, they won’t, or can’t. It’s as if the harassment has continued right into the courtroom.”

Related: A troubling inconsistency at the Merrifield trial

The idea’s not as absurd as it sounds. At a time when other high-profile RCMP harassment suits are landing before the courts—including a class action recently filed by 375 female officers—the Merrifield case has raised the spectre of a force perpetuating its misdeeds by refusing to play by the book when it gets before a judge. Throughout his decade-long battle with his employers, the 49-year-old has described a Kafkaesque syndrome in which high-ranking officers used the force’s internal rules of conduct to discredit him—opening secret investigations, filing damaging reports he never saw, and refusing to give him information he needed to defend himself.

The pattern, he says, goes on to this day. The London police report counts among several key pieces of evidence the Mounties did not reveal until forced to, or “discovered” mid-trial—most recently, eight pages of notes taken by Proulx and another officer, retired assistant commissioner Michel Séguin, during their dealings with Merrifield. Upset by these now-you-see-it surprises, Merrifield’s lawyer, John Phillips, has called on Justice Mary Vallee of the Ontario Superior Court to rule summarily in his client’s favour. The point of timely disclosure, he said, is to ensure that cases “don’t wind up being trials-by-ambush.”

Other followers of the RCMP’s harassment problems wonder whether its leaders understand how such events appear to outsiders. “They might think they’re above the law,” says Jennifer Berdahl, an organizational behaviour expert from UBC’s Sauder School of Business, with whom the Mounties have consulted on workplace-harassment issues. “It’s consistent with a sort insular and corrupt culture that defines the RCMP through these lawsuits: incredibly arrogant and thinking they can manipulate the truth.”

Vallee plans to hear the rest of the evidence before deciding on Phillips’s request. But if the Merrifield case did crash to a premature halt, the loudest cheers might come from RCMP headquarters. Since it started in November, after all, what was supposed to be a brisk, one-month trial has flared into the legal equivalent of a tire fire, exposing allegations of dysfunction and dirty tricks, while putting high-ranking Mounties on the hot seat—not least Bob Paulson himself.

RCMP Sgt. Peter Merrifield arrives at the Newmarket, ON courthouse where Merrifield is challenging the RCMP on allegations of workplace harassment. (Photograph by Cole Garside)

RCMP Sgt. Peter Merrifield arrives at the Newmarket, ON courthouse where Merrifield is challenging the RCMP on allegations of workplace harassment. (Photograph by Cole Garside)

Merrifield’s odyssey began in May 2005, when he stood for a federal Conservative nomination in Barrie, Ont., taking a regular day off to attend the riding association’s vote. He lost (he’d also run unsuccessfully in the previous federal election). But several of his commanders, including Proulx, took exception to his political involvement, saying he’d failed to take the proper leave without pay before running, and chastising him for discussing national security in a local radio interview without first obtaining RCMP permission.

They initially seemed content to send Merrifield a memo instructing him to follow different procedures next time. He was told he was not being investigated and considered the matter closed. Yet, two months later, unbeknownst to Merrifield, Proulx did open a code-of-conduct investigation over the nomination incident—the first of four probes against Merrifield that never resulted in disclipine. Thus began what he claims was a clandestine campaign to hobble his once-promising career. He was dumped from a coveted position in the threat-assessment group, an intelligence unit that investigates threats against VIPs. He was shunted to an undefined job in the force’s customs and excise unit. When he asked for a transfer to the elite Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET), he was told he wasn’t welcome.

Frustrated and depressed, he turned to his lawyers, suing the RCMP in May 2007, alleging abuse of authority and breach of fiduciary duty. But if he thought a trial would clarify events of the past, he was mistaken. Throughout the discovery process, and while the court was hearing his case, he and his counsel have uncovered documents the Mounties failed to disclose, including an occurrence report filed by Proulx proving the existence of an investigation he was told never happened.

Related: Secrecy surrounding RCMP harassment case deepens

In that instance, Merrifield found clues proving the document’s existence through an access-to-information request. In others, he was the beneficiary of anonymous well-wishers. The john-sting story, for one, came to him through word of mouth, from a source he describes as “highly reliable.” The definitive proof arrived in his office mail slot in mid-2014—an unmarked inter-office envelope bearing the London city police report.

That piece of paper would become a massive headache for the Mounties. When shown it last December during his testimony at Merrifield’s trial, Paulson disclaimed all knowledge of it, saying no one in the RCMP had discussed it with him; no one he knew of had looked into the incident; no one ever suggested to him that Merrifield’s allegations might have foundation. White, the assistant commissioner in charge of RCMP operations in Ontario, gave a different account. When asked whether Paulson was aware the Mounties had dispatched a senior officer to make inquiries with the London police, he answered: “I believe he was.”

The outcome of those queries in early January 2012 could prove as bruising to the Mounties’ case as to Proulx, who never faced criminal charges. The officer returned a few days later with a copy, White acknowledged (Justice Vallee instructed White to produce it, post-haste), yet its revelation failed to dislodge the RCMP from its course: Paulson went ahead with his broadside against Merrifield, while his press team issued a release questioning the sergeant’s testimony. The RCMP did not respond this week to repeated requests for comment on that or other developments at the trial. But Sean Gaudet, a Department of Justice lawyer leading the RCMP’s defence, told court that the London police report was not disclosed because it “has nothing to do with Merrifield’s claim that he was subjected to a campaign of harassment.”

Nothing, unless your definition of harassment includes the boss disparaging an employee in a public forum—with a level of surety that belies a lack of knowledge. The trial is not over, of course. And, with his future as a Mountie hanging on a case expected to drag into November, Merrifield might yet come to regret the resonant voice and commanding manner of Commissioner Bob Paulson. Then again, so might the RCMP.

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