Inside the RCMP’s biggest crisis

Hundreds of women are complaining about sexual harassment inside the RCMP. A special report by Nancy Macdonald and Charlie Gillis


The role of RCMP spokesperson in B.C. is a big one. Mounties confident and clever enough to land the job become the effective voice of policing in a province where one third of the national force’s officers serve. So when two officers who held that position became embroiled in separate sexual harassment cases in recent years—one as a female complainant; one as a male accused—the symbolism was hard to ignore. These were, after all, people who personified the organization.

One was Insp. Tim Shields, the face of the force at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, who held the post for 10 years until 2011. Coal-eyed and square-jawed, Shields has been accused in separate civil suits of serial harassment against two female RCMP members, and the specific allegations are ugly. He is alleged, among other things, to have exposed his genitals to one woman while riding in a police cruiser; another woman claims he tried to undress her and, at one point, confined her in a washroom, where he forced her to touch him.

Yet Shields has held his place within the RCMP hierarchy as he deals with the suspicion hanging over him. His current position of district duty officer comes with a desk at the force’s posh new Green Timbers headquarters in Surrey, B.C., and sends him to major incidents across the Lower Mainland. Only after the second woman’s lawsuit landed did he go off on what the RCMP described as “administrative leave” and, even then, a laudatory biography of him remained on the force’s B.C. website.

COVERNot so Catherine Galliford. The 48-year-old went public in 2011 with her story of chronic sexual harassment and bullying by male colleagues that ultimately cost her her career, her home, multiple friendships and her health. (Shields is not implicated in her case.) Once a familiar face from media interviews and RCMP news conferences, she is now a recluse, trapped inside her mother’s suburban Vancouver home by agoraphobia and crippling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Doctors fear she will never regain her health. Nor will she ever work again.

What drives her is a hope that in telling her story, she’ll help make the RCMP more accountable and welcoming to the women coming up behind her. In 2012, she filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of Canada, the minister of justice for British Columbia, and four fellow officers, alleging “persistent and ongoing” sexual harassment and workplace intimidation. She tells Maclean’s that much of her 16 years on the force were spent “either fending off my bosses who were trying to have sex with me, or trying to fend off the senior officers who were trying to destroy my credibility behind my back—individuals who wanted the high-profile jobs I was getting.” By 2004, “going into work was actually making me physically ill,” she says. “I would have to wait outside in the parking lot for 15 minutes to stop myself from shaking. I was terrified of going inside.”

There is much yet to be told of these two officers’ stories: The allegations against Shields have not been proven. His lawyer, David Butcher, refused to comment. A civil trial of Galliford’s case was postponed two weeks ago for lack of sufficient court time.

But the peverse logic of their respective fates in many ways exemplifies the challenge before the RCMP. Four years after Galliford shone a light on a crisis of sexual harassment and retribution within the force, female Mounties tell Maclean’s that the same old syndrome persists: Faced with a revelations of harassment, they say, the RCMP too often manages to protect the accused harasser while punishing the victim.

The Mounties insist they’ve recognized the problem and, armed with new tools, are poised to act. Laws that came into force two months ago have beefed up Commissioner Bob Paulson’s powers to fire perpetrators, while long-awaited processes for resolving harassment complaints are on the books. “I think, if you step back from it, you can see that the organization has taken this seriously,” says Assistant Commissioner Craig MacMillan, the RCMP’s officer in charge of professional responsibilities. “It’s taken some fairly dramatic steps in a relatively short period of time.”

Yet the accusations have kept coming. Five women have followed Galliford’s example by filing sexual harassment lawsuits. And, later this spring, an Ontario lawyer will seek to certify a class action lawsuit against the RCMP on behalf of 380 female claimants, representing all 10 provinces. Former RCMP constable Janet Merlo is the lead plaintiff. She says she endured near-daily harassment on the job— everything from sexualized banter and sex toys left in her desk, to a dressing-down for getting pregnant. She quit the force in 2010, taking a medical discharge. Sandy Zeitzeff, the lawyer on the class action, expects the number of plaintiffs to grow to 1,500.

Photograph by Sandy Huffaker; Photograph by Greg Locke; Photograph by Jimmy Jeong

After going public with her story Galliford (left) ulitmately lost her career and health; Merlo (centre), who left the force, taking a medical discharge, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit; Montague (right) left Canada after filing her suit, on the advice of her lawyer and doctor. (Photographs by Sandy Huffaker, Greg Locke, and Jimmy Jeong)

In short, Canada’s police force is on the brink of a massive credibility test, with no shortage of women saying its fixes are too little, and that they come too late.

Related reading: The RCMP: A Royal Canadian discgrace

Atoya Montague believes two factors can curse a female Mountie’s career: confidence and intelligence. “The more beautiful you are, the more feminine you are, the more willing you are to speak up, the worse you’ll be treated,” she says.

Montague was 27 when she became a civilian member of the RCMP in 2002. The outspoken former senior communications strategist for Canadian Tire was thrilled to land the job, and thrived in the endless crises that made up her 10- to 13-hour days as second-in-command of communications for the RCMP’s B.C. operations, known as “E Division.” Early in her career, she was identified as articulate, intelligent and level-headed. She was “the strongest woman I’d ever met,” says her friend Mary Roka, co-founder of the tech start-up GoTo.

Montague, now 39, is a shell of her former self. “She’s unrecognizable,” says Roka. She won’t answer her phone and has difficulty leaving her small rented condo. She has crippling osteoarthritis and high blood pressure, both related to stress. “They broke her,” says her friend Siobhain Andreasen, a Toronto actuary. “She was an unbreakable person.”

In her 13 years with the RCMP, Montague claims she was the repeated target of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. Her former co-worker Sherry Wright says she witnessed Montague being pushed out of meetings and ignored by their all-male senior management staff. When Montague was named to the RCMP’s integrated security unit for the 2010 Olympic Games, Wright says Montague’s desk was placed in a storage closet, where she was stationed for months, isolated from the team’s male leadership, despite having a senior leadership position as director of communications.

By then, Roka was begging her to quit the force. When Montague first started with the Mounties, the pair would grab lunch together in the E Division cafeteria. But, over time, Roka says she grew so uncomfortable with the sexual comments and innuendo directed at her by Montague’s boss at the time (not Shields) that she stopped visiting. Still, Montague refused to complain.

But by 2011, the near-daily indignities had pushed Montague to the edge. She was plagued by migraines and anxiety. She distanced herself from her family and friends. Eventually, her partner left, too. The former gym rat could no longer find the energy to ride her bike. Eventually, after seeing her family doctor, she took a medical leave.

Then, one day in 2013, a young, female Mountie told Montague she was being sexually harassed by her male superiors. Montague became enraged: “I realized if I didn’t say something, this was going to keep happening.” In August 2013, she filed a lawsuit against Tim Shields, the attorney general of Canada and the minister of justice of B.C., alleging sexual harassment and discrimination.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Response time: News laws have beefed up Commissioner Paulson’s powers to fire perpetrators (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In her statement of claim, Montague alleges she was sexually harassed and discriminated against by several male superiors, including Shields. She alleges that while driving to the B.C. Interior in 2003, Shields showed her “his erection through his jean shorts and made sexual advances.” She alleges Shields asked her to “have sex with him and advising her that he could easily pull over the car so that he could perform oral sex on her.” Montague alleges Shields exposed himself to her in a similar incident in a police car in 2008 and “again made similar unwanted and unprompted sexual advances.” None of the allegations against Shields has been proven in court.

In her lawsuit, Montague alleges Shields was not alone in harassing her. In one incident, she alleges she was surrounded by the male members of the police canine unit “making sexually suggestive comments, taunting . . . pushing and rubbing up against her,” leaving Montague, who ran away, “terrified.”

Last July, 10 months after Montague filed suit, Anitra Singh, an E Division senior communications adviser, filed a sexual harassment suit against Shields and the attorney general of Canada. Singh, a civilian member of the force, alleges in her statement of claim that over a two-year period ending in 2011, Shields exposed himself to her, told Singh he’d like to perform oral sex on her, made regular comments about her breasts and, on several occasions, requested to “meet her at home to have sex.” On one occasion, the statement of claim alleges, he confined her in a washroom and forced her to “touch him in an inappropriate manner.” (Montague says she was unaware of Singh’s lawsuit and has not spoken to her since 2011.)

In his statement of defence in the Montague lawsuit, Shields denies all allegations made against him. In it, he specifically denies that he made “sexual advances or exposed his genitals” to Montague. He says that “at one point during the trip” to the B.C. Interior, he and Montague shared “intimate personal information,” adding that “the conversation was mutual” and Montague was a “willing participant.” He further states that in the workplace, Montague “openly engaged in conversations with her colleagues about personal and sexual aspects of her life” and “participated in sexual banter and frequently made sexual remarks and jokes, including comments and jokes about her own breasts.”

In a statement of defence in the Singh lawsuit, filed this week in Vancouver, Shields denies he sexually harrassed or assaulted Singh. He says Singh “initiated and pursued” an intimate relationship with him, invited him to her residence, and repeatedly dropped into his office “with arms outstretched, commanding a hug with her body language.” Shields claims she engaged in “consensual personal conversations and physical contact” with him while he “attempted to avoid frequent personal contact with the plaintiff.” He goes on to say in the statement that the publicity surrounding the suit has harmed his career, though he does not specify how.

The attorney general of Canada and the minister of justice for B.C. echoed Sheilds’ denials and added in their responses to both suits that Montague and Singh should have used the RCMP grievance process and, given they did not, have no claim against either the provincial or federal governments.

Montague has not shared her story with media until now. “If I thought there was any other way, I would,” she says. “But there’s no safe, fair and objective way for women to complain internally and emerge unscathed. The only way to do that is through the courts.” Montague recently sold her Vancouver condo and left Canada on the advice of her lawyer and doctor. “There’s no hope for me,” she says. “I’m doing this for the next generation of women.”

A few years ago, Ainsley Brand, a young female Mountie, was invited out, believing she was meeting a group of fellow officers from her detachment; she was new, and keen to get to know them. (Because she fears for her job, Maclean’s has agreed to change her name. RCMP regulations prohibit members from publicly criticizing the force. She has provided the magazine with documentation to illustrate her claims.)

When she arrived, the only Mountie there was the supervising officer who’d invited her out. Brand says that when she announced she wanted to go home, the officer began pushing hard alcohol on her, to “celebrate” her new posting. She is a non-drinker and repeatedly told him this, she says, adding: “I couldn’t turn it down. In the RCMP,  you can’t be seen not to be a team player.” She was relatively new to the force, still in her twenties. “From the time you’re at Depot, you’re taught to treat corporals like gods.”

When Brand said she needed to leave, she says they went elsewhere and he began making sexual advances. She says she told him she needed to go home. She had never drunk this much before, she says. She claims she was incapacitated and that the sex was coerced: “I’m a police officer. This was sexual assault,” she says. “He brought me out on a pretext—to meet people that were never there. He used alcohol to lessen my resistance. And he has a history of doing this. Another woman at the detachment later warned me to steer clear of him. He’d done the same thing to her.”

Brand believes the officer was guilty of criminal behaviour, but she settled instead on filing a harassment complaint. When Brand eventually complained, the RCMP responding officer ruled that her complaints were “unsubstantiated” and that the relationship was “consensual,” noting that Brand and the officer had engaged in a relationship after the incident. Brand, who claims she was depressed and having trouble coping, says she engaged in a friendship with the officer for one month in an attempt to lessen her anxiety when seeing him at the detachment. The RCMP further concluded that no “workplace conflict” had occurred. Therefore, no formal harassment investigation was ever ordered.

Brand says she spoke out about the harassment, knowing it could tarnish her reputation and harm her professionally, because she felt this officer needed to be prevented from hurting other women. “I still love my job,” she says. “I love the adrenalin. I love the law. I like to help people. It’s the internal stuff I can’t deal with.”

The revelations—especially Galliford’s—reverberated widely outside the RCMP, as critics asked how Canada could allow such behaviour to persist in its most recognized institution. If the Mounties couldn’t protect their own, they reasoned, why trust them to protect civilian Canadians?

In November 2012, the Senate directed its standing committee on national security to tackle the problem and, seven months later, the committee issued a searing report that called for a “cultural transformation” within the force. Among its recommendations: a zero-tolerance policy that would hold senior management to account in harassment cases; the addition of harassment to the RCMP’s code of conduct as a specific offence; and an end to the practice of simply transferring accused harassers—or, in some cases, victims—to other places in the force. “Immediate, meaningful steps must be taken to enhance the public’s trust in the force,” the report said, “and bolster members’ trust in the disciplinary systems designed to protect them.”

A report by the Office for Public Complaints against the RCMP reached similar conclusions. But by then, Paulson had produced his long-awaited “action plan,” and the Harper government was anxious to get key changes enshrined in law. In the spring of 2013, it introduced to the Commons a package of amendments called the Enhancing RCMP Accountability Act, which empowered the commissioner to establish a new harassment-complaints process and streamline dispute-resolution mechanisms. Both Conservatives and Liberals welcomed the changes and, on Dec. 1, 2014, the day they came into force, Paulson appeared at a celebratory news conference alongside Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.

MacMillan touts new features he says make the process more transparent, fair and efficient. Complainants and accused harassers will both be granted access to the investigative report before a decision is made, he says, and invited to respond. Each case will be received by a special office at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa and, while investigations may be carried out at the divisional level, the national office will monitor the progress of each file. “Most of our members are conducting themselves well,” says MacMillan. “But when you do have conflicts or complaints of harassment, you have to be organizationally responsive. People have to have the confidence you’re going to do something about it.”

The changes have left some underwhelmed. The controversial measure of transferring troublemakers remains an option for RCMP brass, critics note, while timelines within which cases must be heard remain vague. Some wonder whether a new power granted to the commissioner to fire officers for the “promotion of economy or efficiency” within the force might be used to get rid of officers who take medical leave while they fight back against harassers. “It reads to me like a get-rid-of-the-victim clause,” says Rob Creasser, spokesman for the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada, an organization seeking to unionize the RCMP’s officers. “It enhances the power inequity that already existed in the RCMP.”

As for gaining officers’ confidence, the force’s history of reprisal and recrimination against complainants will make that hard. “When people come forward, they are re-victimized,” says Krista Carle, a former RCMP constable who sued the force in 2003 after she and three other women came forward, claiming they were sexually assaulted by a fellow officer. An RCMP harassment investigation in her case concluded her harassment allegations were “unfounded.” The RCMP settled the suit with the four women out of court. Coming forward “destroyed my life,” says Carle, who was in the same RCMP graduating class as Galliford in 1991. She says she was shunned by her colleagues for speaking out, and her marriage couldn’t withstand the strain. She moved to Alberta and changed her last name.

Then there’s the recent case of Stephanie Johnson, who began working for the RCMP as a public servant after immigrating to Canada several years ago. (Because she, too, fears for her job, Maclean’s has agreed to change her name.) Johnson says she was bullied and shunned by fellow employees in her detachment for filing a sexual harassment complaint, which was deemed unfounded by the RCMP. Relations with her co-workers deteriorated to the point that she was barred from the workplace and made to work from home. To gather her assignments, she says she had to knock on the door of her detachment every day for a year and a half: “I felt like a criminal.”

Johnson refused the RCMP’s offer of a buyout. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” she told the force. But, in so doing, she was seen as adversarial: “I just wanted to work. I wanted to contribute and be good at what I did. I was driven and ambitious despite the setbacks.” She says she was eventually allowed to return to her detachment, where her superiors began auditing her performance. Her once-exemplary performance evaluations now listed her work as “unsatisfactory” and a disciplinary process was initiated. The stress began affecting her health. She couldn’t sleep, suffered from severe migraines and was diagnosed with PTSD. An independent psychiatric evaluation has described her work environment as “profoundly toxic.”

The day Johnson was served with disciplinary paperwork for poor performance, she says she had a nervous breakdown. Last year, she was transferred. Her mental health diagnosis was divulged to her new detachment. Often, she wishes she’d never immigrated to Canada. “I dream of going home,” she says ruefully, “of escaping the RCMP.”

Would the RCMP’s new harassment regime have spared what Johnson views as obvious retaliation? Possibly. Along with the new investigation and resolution protocol, the force has introduced a policy forbidding reprisals against harassment complainants and anyone else involved in the process—with punishments up to, and including, dismissal. If an employee doesn’t trust her commanding officer to stop the recriminations, she can complain directly to the national officer for the coordination of harassment complaints.

The question is whether that’s enough to change behaviour at the detachment level, where, victims say, shunning and retribution are part of a code meant to discourage people from complaining. The force’s “protect-your-own” philosophy “makes it almost a mortal sin to speak out against fellow members,” says Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of British Columbia. “And it can be very dangerous for colleagues not to distance themselves from the so-called troublemaker. They don’t want to be tarred by the same brush.”

Jimmy Jeong

Fed up: Passey, a psychiatrist who treats Mounties, has lost faith in the organization (Photo by Jimmy Jeong)

Greg Passey, a psychiatrist with the Operational Stress Injury Clinic of British Columbia, has seen stories like Johnson’s again and again; Passey treats RCMP officers and military staff in both B.C. and Saskatchewan. “The RCMP is a totally dysfunctional organization,” says the 63-year-old, pointing to the cause of the psychological disorders afflicting the “vast majority” of his RCMP patients: harassment and abuse from fellow officers inside detachments. “It boggles the mind,” says Passey. “If you come forward, they label you a troublemaker. They do everything they can to make you go away, and the supervising officers doing the harassing get promoted. Are you kidding me? What kind of organization does that?”

Passey, who spent 22 years in the military and served in Rwanda, has never publicly criticized the RCMP before. But he’s lost his patience, saying he cannot stay quiet any longer. “I’m very frustrated. It’s like I’m walking up to my nose in s–t,” he says. “I’m trying my best to help my patients. My colleagues and I shake our heads at the things we are told, at the breaches in medical confidentiality, the delays.” Passey is from an RCMP family: Both his uncle and father-in-law were Mounties. “I used to be very proud of our force,” he says, but now, “there is no way I would ever allow my daughters to serve in the RCMP.

“These guys are supposed to enforce laws and seek justice,” Passey goes on. “They’re totally flaunting rules and regulations, at times, even laws. How do you trust an organization like this? The RCMP is accountable only to itself—and run by an old-boys’ network. Old boys don’t punish themselves; they go after the victim.”

Like Creasser, Passey is deeply suspicious of the provision in the newly amended RCMP Act allowing the commissioner to medically discharge officers for the promotion of economy and efficiency. “It’s the equivalent of giving the schoolyard bully the power to get rid of his victims.” Passey says he knows several members in the process of being discharged under the new system; most are on medical leave due to harassment. There is one reason for this amendment, he says: “So they [the victims] won’t have the financial resources to continue their legal fight.”

He speaks out at considerable risk, since the last medical professional to publicly criticize the force, police psychologist Mike Webster, was blacklisted by the RCMP for declaring the organization “sick” and needing reform. Webster, a former B.C. Mountie, now works for the Canadian military. But Passey is unafraid: “I don’t care what they do to me. It’s an organization I don’t trust at all.”

The fates of officers like Johnson and Montague are key to the RCMP’s attempts to fix its harassment problem, because they raise a basic question of fairness: Why does the force’s handling of these cases seem to destroy complainants, while hardly denting the careers of the men accused of mistreating them?

Until recently, Shields was a case in point. For 10 months after Montague filed her lawsuit, he continued to speak for the force in media interviews. By then, he’d been promoted to the rank of inspector and served as assistant of operations at the RCMP’s Burnaby detachment, where he oversaw 150 uniformed officers. In 2013—as Montague struggled with anxiety and feelings of hopelessness—Shields landed the position of regional duty officer, one of just four in B.C. Only after Singh filed her lawsuit against him last July did he disappear from public view, though he still holds his high-flying post.

Another troubling instance: Staff Sgt. Tim Korman was named commanding officer of the RCMP’s Meadow Lake detachment in Saskatchewan, even though sexual-harassment allegations against him remained unresolved. Korman received his promotion to staff sergeant on March 19, 2009, six weeks after the complaint, filed by an officer named Laura Lehne, was dismissed because it had taken too long to be heard. “I don’t blame anyone for not coming forward,” Lehne, who left the force in disgust, told reporters at the time, “because it only makes your life hell and nothing’s done.” Only last June, after new, unspecified allegations of “inappropriate workplace conduct” were levelled against Korman, did his bosses suspend him with pay.

At least some women in positions of influence share Lehne’s concern. B.C. Premier Christy Clark voiced dismay after the RCMP transferred an Edmonton-based officer, Sgt. Don Ray, to her province following his reprimand for having sex with subordinates, drinking at work, sexually harassing female colleagues and exposing himself. “I hope that they find a way to do something about it, because I just don’t think it contributes to public confidence,” Clark told a Vancouver radio station in May 2012. “A lot of women are watching and saying, ‘This isn’t right.’ ”

All of which may explain why so few officers have bothered to use the internal process. According to the force’s own count, published in early 2013, only 26 filed formal sexual harassment complaints between 2005 and 2012, a number dwarfed by the hundreds who have signed on to the class action suit. “If you talk to people who tried to go through whatever system was available in the past,” says Creasser, “they’ll say, ‘Why would I put myself through that again? I just felt revictimized.’ ”

As for Galliford, by her admission, it is too late for the RCMP to fix this. For the past two years, she’s been readying herself for her trial, which she considers her only opportunity to hold her “abusers to account.” It was slated to begin last week, on Feb. 16. But, earlier this month, it was suddenly adjourned: The witness list was deemed too long for the trial’s scheduled six weeks. It could take another two years for Galliford to get another court date. Her lawyer tells her the opposition legal team is trying to bleed her dry. Galliford says the process has cost her her life savings—“the price you pay for complaining about sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation, I guess.”

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