It cost her career, her mental health and a huge part of herself, but Janet Merlo says she’s glad she came forward about the harassment she faced as an officer with Canada's national police force.
“I’d do it (again) in a second,” she said in a recent interview.
Merlo has spent nearly a decade in the public eye as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Settled in 2016, the Merlo-Davidson suit ultimately paid out more than $125 million to more than 2,300 women who faced discrimination, harassment, bullying and even sexual assault during their time as RCMP officers.
In total, more than 3,000 women came forward to make a claim.
With the release last Thursday of the final report from that claims process, called “Broken Dreams Broken Lives,” the suit is now over. The 178-page report says fundamental change is needed to rid the RCMP of a systemic toxic culture that tolerates hateful, sexist and homophobic attitudes.
“I wish there were only 50 women that I had helped,” Merlo said from her home in Nanaimo, B.C. “People say ‘Oh you did great,’ but I didn’t do great. There are (thousands of) women who have lost their careers and their self-confidence and their pensions.”
Being a named plaintiff in the suit, she’s faced “horrific” abuse from the public and backlash from the force, she said. She has PTSD, depression and anxiety, and she's often afraid to leave her home.
“That’s not who I was. That’s not who I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be 53 years old, confined to my house,” she said.
Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, Merlo worked with the RCMP in British Columbia for nearly 20 years. The harassment and bullying she faced got so bad, she said her doctor urged her to go on medical leave in 2010. So she did.
In 2012, she filed a class-action lawsuit. That suit became known as Merlo-Davidson after Linda Davidson, a former officer in Ontario who had filed her own lawsuit, joined with Merlo in a settlement.
Merlo said she received a copy of the final report on Tuesday, a few days before it was released to the public. “When I opened that courier envelope . . . I just completely broke down,” she said. “The first few pages of it are just tear-stained.”
The report was written by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache, whose team assessed more than 3,000 claims and interviewed nearly 650 women who said they’d experienced harassment or discrimination while working for the RCMP. It details allegations of bullying, intimidation and assaults ranging from unwanted kissing and groping to “serious, penetrative sexual assault.”
One woman interviewed said she was permanently injured after being left in a dangerous situation without police backup. Others reported male colleagues exposing their genitals or showing them pornographic material.
“What the women told the assessors shocked them to their core,” the report says. But the findings did not shock Merlo. “The one thing that surprised me was the amount of rapes. I knew there had been rapes, but I didn’t realize there were so many,” she said.
The document also highlights the devastating effects the abuse and harassment had on the women who came forward. Bastarache writes of these women experiencing PTSD, addictions and a loss of social connections, among other things.
“In many instances, it was clear that no amount of money would ever compensate these claimants for the trauma that they were subjected to by their male colleagues,” the report reads.
For Merlo, the report contains a point of hope for recovery — for the RCMP, anyway. Bastarache insists that the RCMP is incapable of fixing itself, and that change can only come from seeking outside help. Merlo agrees. “If they don’t do that, if they still insist on not letting anybody into the circle, they’ll be back here again in five years in another class action," she said.
She's also happy the report is now public, difficult as its details may be. Though she feels the public perception of the RCMP has changed from the days when she first spoke out and people would insult her online, she says it's important for that report to be in the public sphere, "to show . . . this is where your taxpaying money is going. That this is what's wrong with the system. And this is what we're trying to help fix."
Merlo said she can still remember the person she was when she took that first step to speak up and to launch the suit. “If I could go back to myself at that time, I would tell her she was going to be alright," she said. "Because I didn’t know, for such a long time, if I would or not.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2020.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press