The proudest moment of Lisa Mackenzie’s life was the day she became a cop. She had grown up in a violent home; she fled at 14 for streets that felt safer than under her father’s roof. “He was very, very physically abusive,” she says. The police were the only people who intimidated him.
Mackenzie was determined the circumstances of her youth would not define her future. When she grew up, she would be on the side of good, stopping people like her dad. She would be the police officer she needed when she was young.
Mackenzie went through the RCMP’s training program, known as “depot,” as a 28-year-old single mom. On her graduation day in May 2003, her mother brought her young son to watch as she marched with the other graduates in red serge dress uniforms. At the end of the ceremonial Pass Out foot-drill routine that marks completion of basic training, the new officers stomped their boots and stood at attention as utter silence descended on the auditorium in Regina.
A little voice rang out: “That’s my mom.”
But now, Mackenzie is leaving the only job she ever wanted, retiring early after nearly 20 years of alleged harassment at the hands of higher-ranking male officers. (Her ordeal is laid out in a statement of claim she filed against the RCMP in November 2019. The allegations are not proven; more than three years later, RCMP has not filed a statement of defence.)
She is far from alone. Thousands of women in the RCMP have encountered discrimination and harassment. Hundreds have been sexually assaulted, even raped, by fellow officers. Those numbers, drawn from a class action settled in 2017, are likely low, as many survivors never report their abuse. Still, that lawsuit saw the RCMP compensate 2,304 women, including Mackenzie, with more than $125 million for gender-based discrimination and harassment.
“Bright, well-educated women said that they joined the RCMP seeking to help others, sometimes because they themselves had needed help as a young person,” notes a 2020 report compiled from claimants’ testimonies. “They told … of the brutal treatment they experienced which ground them down, broke their confidence, and shattered their trust in their fellow officers. The full tragedy and suffering of what the RCMP’s failure to provide a safe workplace has done to these women is overwhelming.”
The report, “Broken Dreams Broken Lives: The Devastating Effects of Sexual Harassment On Women in the RCMP,” written by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache, concludes that “the culture of the RCMP is toxic and tolerates misogyny and homophobia in all ranks and in all provinces and territories.” The problem is not new: Bastarache notes his report is just the latest of many that detail misogyny, harassment, abuse and assault within the force all the way back to 1974, when women were allowed to join.
Chatelaine spoke with more than a half-dozen women who are or have been RCMP officers. All feared—even expected—retaliation from the RCMP for speaking out. “You blow the whistle or call out wrongdoing and your world gets destroyed,” says Judi Watt, a corporal who retired in 2014.
Janet Merlo, one of the lead plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, joined the RCMP in 1991. She studied criminology in university, interested in what she calls “deviant behaviour.” She didn’t expect the most deviant behaviour she’d encounter would be within her workplace. “I was fearful of what I would face out on the road,” she says. “I didn’t know that what I should have been afraid of most was what I was going to have to deal with in-house.”
During training, new recruits were quizzed on the worst year in the history of the police force. The answer was 1974. Any error by a female recruit was met with, “Fuck 1974,” says Merlo. For example, when she forgot her hat, someone said, “Hey Merlo, where’s your hat?” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, forgot my hat.’” The response: “Fuck 1974.” Women arriving at new detachments often were given nicknames, the letters D and B plus a number. One might be “DB 4,” another, “DB 2.” The “DB” stood for “Dumb Bitch”; the number was assigned based on how many “DBs” had worked at that detachment before.
Lisa Mackenzie’s first posting was in Prince George, the central British Columbia city where she’d grown up. For the first 18 months of her career, things went well. She did her best to measure up to the high standards of the RCMP and its stated values of honesty, integrity, professionalism, compassion, accountability and respect. She received positive performance reviews. She loved her job.
In December 2004, she married another RCMP officer and they moved to Kamloops, about 500 kilometres south of Prince George. The marriage disintegrated within months and he moved out, though he continued to come by her house frequently, often late at night. Afraid, she took to sleeping with her young son behind a locked bedroom door and complained to management at the Kamloops detachment where they both worked. Supervisors did nothing, she says. Then, in January 2006, her ex-husband broke into her house and, she later alleged, took video tapes that may have contained evidence of earlier RCMP wrongdoing. She gave a statement to investigators at their detachment but he was never charged—the file was deemed “civil in nature.” Mackenzie made a formal complaint against management for its dismissal of her safety concerns and its response to the break-in. (A damning report by the RCMP watchdog more than a decade later found the force repeatedly failed to investigate her allegations that officers may have stolen evidence that implicated them in the sexual harassment of an Indigenous teenager).
Shortly afterward, Mackenzie and a co-worker reported a senior officer making inappropriate comments about women. In one instance, the officer suggested a husband killed his wife in a homicide the force was investigating because the woman was pregnant with a girl. In another, the same officer remarked on the recently dyed hair of a young female officer, asking, “Does the carpet match the drapes?” Mackenzie, who witnessed the comment, felt compelled to raise the issue to spare the more junior officer having to do so. In response, Mackenzie was ordered to a meeting with the senior officer and the staff sergeant to whom she’d reported the comments “to discuss.”
“This upset [Mackenzie] and she attended this awkward meeting repeating her concerns before [the],” reads her lawsuit. The meeting ended without resolution or apology.
Mackenzie asked for a transfer back to Prince George. She was in financial straits after the divorce, raising a child on her own, and needed to be near her family for support. The RCMP denied her request, despite letters from her doctor and counsellor recommending the move for health reasons. Her house was foreclosed and she had to send her young son to stay with relatives in Prince George, 500 kilometres away, while she crashed at a friend’s home in Kamloops so she could continue reporting for duty.
Then, in April 2007, she got notice that the staff sergeant she had complained about had initiated a slew of code of conduct allegations against her. “This obvious retaliation … to her previous unresolved complaints about his conduct was extremely intimidating and made the plaintiff fearful and the workplace too stressful for the plaintiff,” reads her statement of claim. Four years into the career she’d always dreamed of, she went on sick leave.
When she returned to work a few months later, her supervisors—including the one she had complained about—assigned her to administrative work, which is typically reserved for officers with health limitations or who are under investigation for serious offences, neither of which applied to Mackenzie. It meant she had to work every shift alongside the senior member she’d complained about.
Mackenzie again requested a transfer out of Kamloops. This time, she was told she wasn’t eligible because of the alleged code of conduct violations. (She would ultimately be cleared of all of them.) Mackenzie was then slapped with a negative performance review. She filed a formal complaint against her superior for “dealing with her punitively as a result of her reporting his inappropriate behaviour to management.” Around the same time, she heard from colleagues that another high-ranking officer was warning others to avoid her because she was a “negative member.”
“She was very concerned that this was an attempt to isolate her and undermine the trust that her co-workers had in her,” reads her statement of claim. She filed another formal complaint. Then, she was told she wasn’t welcome at the Kamloops detachment anymore. If she wanted to work for the RCMP, she’d need to commute to a small community 60 kilometres away. She did.
Mackenzie was eventually allowed to return to the Kamloops detachment, but her formal complaints were never addressed and the harassment continued. When the same senior officer she’d reported in 2007 was supervising annual firearms training, Mackenzie’s holster was stiff, making it difficult to remove her gun. He sprayed some lubricant on it and remarked, “Oh, this is great, now I can tell everyone I lubed up Mackenzie.” Given the lack of response to her prior complaints, she didn’t bother reporting it.
After her doctor ordered her not to work night shifts or overtime due to health issues, she was posted to the city’s rural detachment. There, she frequently had to work alone past the scheduled end of her shift because there was simply no one else on duty to, for example, respond to a fatal vehicle crash or maintain the perimeter of a hostage situation. Then, the RCMP disciplined her for working overtime against her doctor’s orders. “As a result the plaintiff was completely devastated and emotionally exhausted,” reads her statement of claim. “The harassment never stopped.”
Judi Watt grew up in Calgary, in a family that often camped in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains north of the city. The drive took them past the site of the RCMP’s police service dog centre near Innisfail. “From five years old, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do,” says Watt. She went through the six-month training program in 1993 and was posted to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
It was a difficult environment. Each new graduate is paired with a more experienced officer for the first six months for on-the-job training. Watt’s trainer told her during their first meeting that he disapproved of women in the RCMP. “You do as I say, don’t ask questions, and any chance I get to convince you that you don’t belong here, I’m going to take it,” Watt recalls him telling her.
She says she was asked to be a character reference for another officer accused of sexual assault. “I said, ‘No, I couldn’t get on the stand and say it’s not possible that he did it, because he groped my boobs on the job.’” After that, her colleagues made it clear they wouldn’t be coming as backup on potentially dangerous calls if she needed it. “His buddies were like, ‘You get no cover. You’re on your own.’” (The Bastarache report drawn from the experiences of more than 3,000 women in the RCMP notes the denial of backup in high-risk situations is one of the most troubling features of systemic retaliation in the police force.)
Watt developed post-traumatic stress disorder after a vehicle she was pursuing crashed, killing its three occupants. “It was horribly traumatizing,” says Watt, who for months afterward couldn’t drive a police car. She was open about her mental health and faced harassment for it. “I dealt with the boys’ club calling me a baby,” she says.
Watt spent seven years on general duty working toward her lifelong dream of becoming a dog handler in the service. In 2000, she made it. Four years later, she was promoted—the first woman in the dog section to ever make corporal—and transferred to Manitoba. Her difficulties within the RCMP continued. She faced domestic violence and reported it to her superiors. “I said, ‘I need your help,’” says Watt. “[They], ‘That would look bad for you, you’re a female cop with a mental health issue.’” Nothing was done.
Worn down and sick, Watt retired early in 2014, at the age of 45. She says she is still working through the aftermath of harassment, retribution, gaslighting and other abusive tactics every day. “It’s horrible. It’s heartbreaking. I’ve been grieving that organization for so many years,” she says. “I feel like I wasted years of my life that I will never, ever, ever get back. And even years going forward, because I will never be the same.”
When Janet Merlo watched the news in November 2011, she could hardly believe what she saw. Catherine Galliford, a bright, vivacious woman Merlo had gone through depot with, was on TV. That wasn’t unusual—in the two decades since they graduated together in 1991, Galliford had become a high-profile corporal who served as spokesperson during the RCMP’s investigation into the Air India bombing and later, B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton.
But this time, Galliford looked ashen, hunched over, her face partly hidden by a ball cap, recounting 20 years of sexual harassment. “If I had a dime for every time one of my bosses asked me to sit on his knee, I’d be on a yacht in the Bahamas right now,” Galliford told CBC in that interview. For Merlo, it was a turning point.
“[Seeing] her so frail and broken, oh my God, it just broke my heart,” says Merlo. “The only way to respond was to come out swinging and start telling the truth. They alienate you and they break you down and make you think you’re the only one. But we were all going through it.”
Merlo launched a class-action lawsuit against the RCMP for discrimination and sexual harassment in 2012 that was later merged with a similar lawsuit filed by RCMP officer Linda Gillis Davidson. Merlo expected a few hundred, maybe a thousand, women would join. More than 3,000 did. “It tripled our expectations, which showed just how big this problem is, bigger than we ever anticipated,” says Merlo.
The Merlo-Davidson lawsuit was settled in 2017 with the RCMP compensating women for experiences ranging from lewd remarks to groping to sexual violence, including more than 130 claimants who disclosed “penetrative sexual assaults”—in other words, rape.
(Another lawsuit against the RCMP that’s broader in scope than the Merlo-Davidson case alleges the force fails to prevent bullying, intimidation and harassment in the workplace. It was certified as a class action in September 2022 and estimates of compensation exceed $1 billion. Yet another class action against the force involves officers who allege sexual assault during mandatory medical exams conducted by RCMP doctors. In February, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki announced her retirement amid these, and other, controversies plaguing the force.)
The “Broken Dreams Broken Lives” report that stemmed from the Merlo-Davidson settlement called for “hard questions” about the future of federal policing in Canada. “Despite past efforts, the RCMP has failed to resolve this pervasive problem; sexual discrimination is embedded in its culture,” report author Bastarache noted. “I do not see any way forward without some form of sustained independent and external pressure.”
The RCMP and the federal government promised to act. The RCMP committed to forming an independent, civilian-staffed harassment resolution centre, addressing systemic barriers, and various initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion, among other measures. According to an RCMP representative reached by Chatelaine, RCMP employees lodged 197 harassment complaints that included discrimination between 2016 and 2020. Since 2021, when new reporting regulations came into effect that force employers to accept all complaints, there have been 358 complaints of discrimination. But the RCMP doesn’t collect data specific to gender-based harassment or bullying.
Last year, the federal government introduced Bill C-20, which would strengthen oversight of the RCMP, including requiring its commissioner to report on progress fulfilling recommendations from its watchdog within legislated timelines. The bill passed second reading and is now before committee, where it will be reviewed and amendments considered before going back to parliamentarians for final approval.
Merlo believes the bill must go further, with recommendations that are “totally binding,” or the same problems will persist. “This has to have teeth,” says Merlo.
Lisa Mackenzie went on medical leave in December 2018. She never returned to her job. She sued the RCMP in 2019 and, more than three years later, the force finally responded to her lawyer, suggesting a meeting. That hasn’t happened yet.
It’s not the career ending she dreamed of. “The people I worked with, the majority of them were really good people,” says Mackenzie. “The work that we’ve done, I’m really proud of it. That, I will miss. The love of my career and going to work every day always outweighed all that crap that was going on."
“But you can only take so much.”
Her biggest regret is what her son had to live through. “It really upsets me to think of the times where I was most broken and my son had to deal with that. That was a huge part of his younger years. He didn’t deserve that … and that hurts me more than anything.” Her son, now in his 20s, always dreamed of being an RCMP officer, like her; he’s in the process of applying to the force.
She wishes they could have served together.
Illustrations by Sunnu Rebecca Choi