Will Bob Paulson testify at a messy Mountie harassment trial?

Charlie Gillis reports from a Newmarket court, where a judge is considering whether the RCMP commissioner should answer subpoena in landmark trial
New Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson salutes during a change of command ceremony in Ottawa December 8, 2011. Chris Wattie/Reuters
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson salutes during a change of command ceremony in Ottawa. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson salutes during a change-of-command ceremony in Ottawa (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

One of the RCMP’s messiest harassment cases yet—and there have been some ugly ones—is unfolding this week in a courtroom in Newmarket, Ont., where a judge is now considering whether the country’s top Mountie should be required to testify.

Commissioner Bob Paulson is one of several senior officers, retired and active, drawn into a lawsuit filed against the force by Sgt. Peter Merrifield, a 17-year officer who has served on some of the RCMP’s high-profile federal policing units, including the air marshal service and the vaunted Integrated National Security Enforcement Task Force (INSET).

Merrifield is alleging harassment, breach of fiduciary duty and abuse of authority on the part of his superiors, who he says tried to drive him out of the force. He is seeking more than $500,000 in damages, as well as declarations that the RCMP has violated his Charter rights.

“I was very stressed, intimidated—worried about my employment,” Merrifield told Ontario Superior Court on Tuesday, adding: “I was feeling very isolated from other members of the RCMP.” Thick-set and shaven-headed, the 48-year-old paused several times during his testimony to contain his emotions. “I was as upset nine years ago as I am right now,” he said.

Merrifield’s allegations have not been proven in court, and lawyers with the federal justice department have filed a statement of defence denying he was harassed. They say Merrifield’s career was not harmed.

Like other cases of workplace harassment filed against the RCMP, this one has exposed deep personal animosities within the force—in this case, between Merrifield and his former commanding officer, Supt. Marc Proulx (now retired).

In the last nine years, Merrifield alleges, Proulx and other senior officers conducted four separate code-of-conduct investigations against him—one of which he says was illegally done, in secret. None of them resulted in disciplinary action.

But the case also raises the fraught question of whether individual Mounties enjoy the same freedoms as other Canadians to associate and express themselves. Merrifield’s troubles began when he sought the Conservative party nomination in Barrie, Ont., to run in the 2006 federal election. He had run unsuccessfully for the Tories in the 2004 federal election with no career repercussions. In this case, he said, his immediate superiors knew of his plans, and he believed he was permitted to run, as long as he did so on his own time.

The government’s statement of defence says he failed to obtain explicit permission from his superiors, and that RCMP rules required him to take special leave before seeking political office.

Merrifield lost the nomination, but the incident triggered a series of clashes with Proulx and another senior officer, Insp. James Jagoe. They disapproved of radio and TV interviews he’d done on the subject of terrorism, he claims, though he did not identify himself as a member of the RCMP or reveal classified information. And, as the weeks passed, Merrifield testified, he came to believe he’d been “black-balled”: His bosses began yanking him off important tasks, citing concerns that his political activity could create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

One of those assignments was the investigation of death threats to MP Belinda Stronach after she crossed the Commons floor to join the Liberals on May 17, 2005. Another was duty at a special operations centre set up by police and intelligence agencies after the arrest of the so-called Toronto 18 terrorism suspects. “I was the only member of my division told not to attend a national security emergency,” he said. “[I felt] destroyed.”

Proulx assured him in an email sent Sept. 23, 2005, that he was not under investigation. But, on Tuesday, Merrifield’s lawyers introduced as evidence documents obtained last year under Access to Information. One appears to be a file jacket for a professional standards investigation of Merrifield, opened by Proulx eight weeks before he sent Merrifield the reassuring email. Somebody had handwritten the word “secret” on the file jacket. A notation to the file indicates it was closed on Oct. 26.

Merrifield was subsequently transferred to the RCMP’s Customs and Excise section in Newmarket, Ont.—a reassignment he considered a demotion from his previous work in criminal intelligence and national security threat assessment.

He swallowed the transfer, he said. But other allegations followed: He was accused of misusing his RCMP-issued credit card, and placed under audit. He was also investigated for allegedly leaking confidential RCMP documents—his own job-performance evaluations—to an Ottawa newspaper. Neither resulted in disciplinary action.

The whole saga has turned Merrifield into a prominent advocate for workplace rights as a Mountie. He became representative in the RCMP’s internal staff relations system and a member of the Mounted Police Professional Association, an organization that has gone to court for the right to unionize the RCMP. In 2009, he took the fight to the Supreme Court of Canada in an effort to win the right to file his lawsuit.

The commissioner’s involvement in all this is incidental—yet potentially pivotal. In June 2013, Paulson appeared before a Senate standing committee on national security. He used the opportunity to rebut earlier submissions by Merrifield and, in doing so, characterized Merrifield as a union agitator “leading the drive in Ontario,” and a loose cannon who “tried to take on investigations that would be in conflict with our ethics.”

Merrifield’s lawyers, John Phillips and Laura Young, want Paulson to explain who provided information to him, who gathered it and—perhaps most important—how it was gathered. Federal lawyers counter that the commissioner cannot be ordered to testify, because his remarks are protected by parliamentary privilege.

Supt. Paul Hebert, the RCMP’s case manager in the suit, declined to comment on Merrifield’s testimony, because the matter remains before the court. But, he cautioned, “We haven’t stated our side of the story. By the time we get through cross-examination [of Merrifield] and our own witnesses, you’ll have a much clearer picture of the case.”

Justice Mary Vallee is expected to rule on Paulson’s subpoena on Thursday or Friday. Three weeks have been set aside for the trial.