Alice Clark wanted to be a Mountie before women were even permitted to join the force.
But when she joined in 1981, it wasn’t the honourable job she was expecting. After experiencing years of harassment, Clark left the force and became the first woman to successfully sue the RCMP for sexual harassment.
It’s been 25 years since, and while she’s grateful that more women are coming forward to support one another, she hasn’t seen the change she was hoping for.
“It’s disgusting that things haven’t changed,” she says.
WATCH: Alice Clark on the sexual harassment and culture of bullying in the RCMP
Whether the recently announced civilian advisory board will be able to address the scourge of sexual harassment in the RCMP remains to be seen. However, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said its first priority will be addressing internal bullying and harassment. Since Clark first came forward, more than 3,100 sexual harassment claims have been made under the Merlo-Davidson class-action settlement alone.
“I earned my right to wear that serge,” she says, decades later, her voice breaking. “I knew they were doing this to other people, too, and it had to stop.”
Clark looked at the red serge and saw honour and integrity. And then: “Mounties finally get their ma’am,” read the caption in the March 4, 1975 edition of the Toronto Star. The picture shows the first, stern-faced women Mounties in skirts and fancy red shirts, arms swinging straight as they marched.
Clark joined their ranks in 1981; she is beaming in her graduation photo. She started in Bonnyville, Alta., as the detachment’s first woman, and another followed soon after.
WATCH: Alice Clark explains how male troops in the RCMP used to bark at female troops during training
When Clark was transferred southwest to Red Deer in September 1981, the harassment began.
There were plastic breasts left on her desk, she says, and a supervisor who called every man by his name but patted her shoulder and called her “dearie.” There were the men who told her to go home, have a baby and be a “real woman,” other men who called her foul words and others still who insisted she was a “waste of a uniform.” Then, there was the Mountie who asked her to have sex with him in the back of his squad car while she was guarding a dead body. An RCMP spokesperson said the force would not provide specific comment on Clark’s case.
WATCH: Why the first woman to sue the RCMP for sexual harassment wanted to be a Mountie
The stress started to get to her. Clark could barely get through a single workday so she thought in 15-minute increments: 15, deep breath, another 15, deep breath, half-hour gone.
“It was horrible,” Clark says.
When she could no longer bear to go to work, Clark filed an internal harassment complaint and took a transfer north to Beaverlodge. Work was starting to get better, she says, and then within a span of weeks, she got a note saying her harassment complaint was unfounded. Soon after, her sergeant told her the RCMP had laid assault charges against her in connection with old arrests.
It was unexpected, Clark says. In one case, she had been tasked with dealing with a drunk woman who refused to take off her jewelry and “things kind of went downhill from there.” Clark characterizes it as “hair-pulling” incident (she pulled the woman’s hair) in which her colleagues watched rather than assisted. In the second case, she says, she had pulled over a drunk driver after a high-speed chase. She didn’t realize the woman was quite small when she pulled her out of her car, Clark says, but as soon as she did she adjusted her hold.
Clark was done.
She quit in 1987, thinking the Mounties would drop the charges and finally leave her alone. They didn’t. After she was acquitted of the charges, Clark sued. She maintains that the force only charged her because she never shied away from speaking up about sexual harassment.An RCMP spokesperson said the force would not provide specific comment on Clark’s case.
“I put so much of myself into that job, into that serge,” Clark says, her voice almost breaking.
“I gave them a piece of me, a big chunk, and it was not easy for me to lay that harassment complaint. It wasn’t easy to turn in my red serge.”
Janet Merlo remembers the nasty comments from people on the internet when she took her story public: She can’t take a joke, she has no place in the force, I bet she wishes she’d been harassed, she’s a shitty cop, she’s probably a terrible mother.
She was there in 2016 when Paulson, the former RCMP commissioner, apologized on behalf of the force to its women members.
WATCH: Historian explains how the Mounties’ modern scandals are nothing new
Now and then, Merlo says, women send her copies of the statements they plan to submit as part of their application for compensation under the $100-million settlement.
The women detail sexual assaults and unlawful confinements and other similarly serious charges, Merlo says. She reads the statements, which independent investigators are still combing through, evaluating and — when deemed credible — assigning a monetary value. So far, investigators have opened more than 3,100 claims.
The public likely won’t hear those stories, even the ones deemed credible. The information they submit is not shared with the force. Per an RCMP spokesperson, the force only reviews information if a claimant “chooses to bring forward” and it concerns a serving member.
“We’ve had a public apology, they’re paying all these RCMP female victims money,” says Dr. Greg Passey, a psychiatrist who has worked with Mounties for more than two decades. “But how many of the accused, how many of the harassers have actually come forward and there’s been any accountability?
RCMP spokesperson Daniel Brien said the RCMP “does not have the authority to provide information on specific conduct files to the public and media” due to privacy legislation but that employees are “expected to conduct themselves in a manner that meets the rightfully high expectations of Canadians.”
Without those stories, Passey says, the country “truly doesn’t understand the extent of this problem.”
While the RCMP has acknowledged that it failed its female members, Merlo says she’s still waiting for accountability.
“What other organization in Canada can have a lawsuit so big, and yet nobody has ever been investigated?” she says. “Nobody is charged. Nobody is reprimanded. Nobody is fired. We’re not talking bad jokes here. We’re talking sexual assaults and unlawful confinement. All kinds of serious charges.”
Brien said the force is “focused on taking any steps possible to ensure a safe and respectful work environment” and noted that the RCMP has “enhanced and updated established policies and programs” in support of that goal.
Deciding to speak publicly against the RCMP isn’t easy, says Alice Fox, a former Mountie discharged in late 2017.
Fox has fought her own battles with the RCMP and is fighting one now with PTSD. She’s trying to articulate why the Mounties — women in particular — haven’t seemed to be able to make a difference, even decades after women like Clark made national news by going public with the sexual harassment they faced.
WATCH: ‘Being a martyr in this game will kill you,’ says former Mountie
“You get so beaten down in this process,” Fox says. Her voice is slow and her words carefully chosen, in part because she has a non-disclosure agreement with the force as the result of a harassment lawsuit she settled with them in November 2017. Many Mounties, past and present, are careful with their words for similar reasons; some won’t even talk, the risk feels too great.
“Being silenced is a difficult place to be,” Fox says, “but it’s the best place to be if it means you get to live.”
The RCMP did not respond to requests for comment about its use of non-disclosure agreements.
That women who were harassed in the 1980s and into the 21st century say there has been no internal accountability should be cause for concern, says Passey, the doctor who works with Mounties and specializes in PTSD.
WATCH: ‘The population truly doesn’t understand the extent of this problem’
The federal government has had years and years to deal with this, he says — a 2013 Senate report urged federal leadership to act, noting there is “little margin for error” — but instead, Canada has gone from a handful of women like Clark to thousands, not including the thousands of men coming forward with their own $1.1-billion class-action harassment lawsuit.
“The whole culture is used to this whole idea of being able to abuse power without any accountability, without any responsibility,” says Passey.
RCMP spokesperson Brien noted that the force’s “members are subject to the same laws as all Canadian citizens.”
People would face repercussions for their actions if there was accountability, both Clark and Passey agree. And yet, Passey says, when allegations are made public, there don’t seem to be any consequences.
Clark remembers watching the formal RCMP apology. She was insulted. What did leaders of the force do when they saw women being harassed? Did they step up or speak out? She wants to know. It’s a question many have asked: how many of the harassers or those who witnessed harassment but said nothing have come forward, have been held to account?
Brien said the force is bound to an extent by privacy legislation but that it “addresses conduct issues in a timely, efficient and fair manner.”
Clark is still waiting for an answer.
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