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WELL PAST THE TIME FOR CHANGE


November 4, 2013
By Danette Dooley

HEAD: Well past time for change

by Danette Dooley

Janet Merlo worked for the RCMP for almost two decades. What started out as the career of a lifetime quickly turned into a gut-wrenching, humiliating experience as Merlo would become physically sick knowing the harassment she would face.

The Carbonear, Newfoundland native was among the first female RCMP officers to publicly allege she had experienced sexual harassment and gender discrimination while serving on Canada’s national police force.

Merlo joined at age 22. Over the years, she says, wearing the red serge destroyed not only her career but also her mental wellbeing and marriage.

“I loved frontline policing. I never wanted to move up the chain and be management. I liked the hands on of getting in the car every day and not knowing what you are going to be dealing with before you went home. I would have stayed 35 years had the circumstances been different,” Merlo said during a recent interview at a local coffee shop in St. John’s.

Merlo says, like hundreds of others who have come forward with similar allegations, she kept quiet for years about the harassment because, she says, there was no one to tell – but tell, she does, in her recently released book (Breakwater Books, 2013).

The book could also be called ‘In her own words’ as editor Leslie Vryenhoek does a great job in letting Merlo tell her story – the good and the bad, the highs and the lows.

“When you know the guys in the office are calling you ‘the f–-ing woman with the big mouth when you bring up issues of officer safety, it just breaks your spirit. At a point I used to get so physically ill going into that police station… I’d be puking. I’d clean up, brush my teeth, put on my uniform and go out and pretend life was normal.”

The book is not only about the alleged harassment and how that wore her down, it also touches upon numerous aspects of police work that officers face every day – teenagers who are caught shoplifting, drug addicts committing crimes, parents who need to be reported to authorities for suspected child abuse and having to explain to a family that their loved one has just been suddenly killed.

Such stories give outsiders a glimpse into what police work is all about.

However, the allegations Merlo addresses in her book, if proven in court, will prove she was a victim of harassment and abuse. There’s the supervisor who kept a blow up doll in his office and, on night shift, would ask Merlo to stand next to it to see who was taller. There’s the boss who, once he found out Merlo was pregnant, suggested the next time she keep her legs closed.

Merlo also tells how she was devastated when troop mate Cpl. Catherine Galliford came forward with similar allegations.

Galliford was the face in front of the camera during high-profile cases like the Air India disaster and the Robert Pickton mass-murder case.

Galliford told CBC TV’s Natalie Clancy in a 2011 interview about the corrosive sexual discrimination and harassment she says she faced on the job.

“Onscreen, she looked slender, stressed, and broken – a far cry from the vibrant, cheerful girl I remembered at Depot… Listening to Catherine brought me to tears. So much of her story echoed mine,” Merlo wrote.

{Left the force}

Merlo’s entire policing career was spent in British Columbia. Depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she left the force in 2010, having signed off on a medical discharge.

In his introduction to the book, well known journalist Linden MacIntyre noted that in March 2012, Merlo filed a class-action lawsuit, expecting dozens of women to come forward with supporting stories of their unhappy experiences in the RCMP. Within months, MacIntyre writes there were hundreds – women fed up with being silent about the sexism and abuse that had derailed their careers.

“As of the last court date in June there were 282 women,” Merlo says. Her case is expected back before the courts in 2014.

Merlo, who has moved back to Newfoundland with her two daughters, makes it clear early in the book that her intention is not to bash the RCMP.

She’s proud of the organization, she writes, and the amazing members she worked with over the years. The vast majority of members she knew are decent, hard-working police officers, she says.

It’s a small minority, she says, who make life unbearable for many good members and for women, especially, she writes.

The bullying and harassment, she says, takes an astounding toll on the lives of both women and men and, she says, on “the ability of Canada’s national police force to serve and protect our communities effectively.

“I have to be stronger than those who hide behind their false screens and try to break others by hurling abuse. It’s well past time to speak out for change,” Merlo writes.

dooley@blueline.ca


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