By Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press on December 14, 2023.
VANCOUVER – Bonnie Robichaud’s ordeal started in the late 1970s when she got a unionized job as a cleaner on a military base in Ontario, and a Department of National Defence employee began sexually harassing her.
Her complaint eventually reached the Supreme Court of Canada, and in 1987 it set a precedent requiring employers to provide workplaces free of harassment and discrimination.
She says things are different now. But it’s women, and “not so much the military,” that have changed.
“Women have become more aware, so the culture has become more aware. Women up to that point didn’t even talk to each other very much about it,” she said.
“Since that victory, they have now sought support from others, other women, other groups, legal advice. So, women have become more proactive since the Supreme Court decision.”
Victims of sexual harassment in Canadian police forces, the military, and its spy agency point not just to individual offenders, but to ongoing acceptance of problematic behaviour in such tight-knit organizations.
Scandals that have engulfed the institutions point to long-standing cultures in need of a “deep reckoning,” said law professor Sylvia Rich with the University of Ottawa.
Rich, who studies police violence against women and organizational culture, said most big organizations deal with harassment issues to some degree.
But she said sexual harassment can be “particularly severe” in organizations that “are very hierarchical.”
Recruits are trained from the outset to respect hierarchy, said Rich, and “being trained to respect hierarchy might sometimes mean being trained to respect the person who is harassing or abusing you.”
“That makes potentially a culture in which it’s really easy to take advantage of people” she said. “Then there are reporting mechanisms that are really lax.”
Robichaud, who released a memoir last year called “It Should Be Easy To Fix,” said fixing the problem of workplace harassment requires leadership that doesn’t exist.
She said the mental toll wears complainants down, but she “had the resources to fight back and had my union to pay my legal fees.”
‘It shouldn’t take that kind of effort to get your supervisor to stop asking for sexual favours,” she said.
In the decades since Robichaud’s case, two comprehensive reviews of the Canadian military by former Supreme Court justices Marie Deschamps and Louise Arbour found sexual misconduct remained a problem.
“In 2015, my former colleague, Justice Marie Deschamps documented the sexualized culture in the CAF,” Arbour’s 2022 review said.
“The revelations of Justice Deschamps led to a flurry of activity by the CAF in an attempt to fix the problem. Unfortunately, those efforts have so far failed.”
Arbour declined a request for an interview.
Statistics Canada released a report last week saying 3.5 per cent of regular armed forces members reported being sexually assaulted in the military workplace or by a military member in the previous 12 months. That is more than double the rates reported in 2016 and 2018.
Sexual misconduct and harassment issues have led to multimillion-dollar legal settlements against the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Those with pending legal actions say speaking out publicly is one way to effect change to make workplaces safer.
In October 2023, a group of current and former police officers launched a class-action lawsuit against more than a dozen municipal police forces in British Columbia.
The female officers’ lawsuit alleges pervasive harassment, bullying and discrimination against them by fellow officers and management, including misogynistic comments, unwanted touching and sexual assault.
Helen Irvine is a plaintiff and an officer with the Delta Police Department.
She said she developed depression after enduring sexual harassment and “retaliatory abuse” by management after complaining about it.
“My life will never be the same,” Irvine said in an interview. “I will always carry this with me.”
Irvine quit the department last year and has since found a career “far from policing.”
Fellow plaintiff Cary Ryan, formerly with the West Vancouver Police Department, said she was “routinely exposed to unwanted physical contact and invitations for sex with co-workers.”
She said her complaints were dismissed by management as “emotional,” and she left the force back in 2009.
“It goes to show you this has been going on for decades,” she said in an interview. “This isn’t new.”
Another lead plaintiff can’t be named because her identity is covered by a publication ban, having been sexually assaulted by a fellow member of the Vancouver Police Department. That officer was convicted and jailed last year.
The woman, who is still in policing but with another agency, said sexual harassment in law enforcement is “rampant,” and mechanisms to investigate gender discrimination, sexual assault and harassment are “not working.”
“They’re a failure, and they’re failing to protect their female employees,” she said.
She said harassment in municipal police forces is an “epidemic,” and she quit the VPD after 16 years in May.
“Leaving the Vancouver Police Department was the best decision I could make for my own survival,” she said. “The decision didn’t come lightly, but I needed a safe place.”
The plaintiffs, she said, banded together after they concluded that as women in these organizations, “you either quit or kill yourself in municipal policing.”
“Thankfully, I was joined by five other extremely brave women who were victims of the same treatment,” she said. “Together we have been able to bring light to this and now we see it’s not only us and we’ve known all along that it’s not only us.”
The women claim the Police Act is flawed because it doesn’t allow officers to be seen as “victims” of police misconduct. It was years after her assault before her attacker was fired.
“The delays within the Police Act are atrocious,” she said. “The Police Act was never meant to capture violence against women in the workplace.”
None of the municipalities named as defendants in the lawsuit have responded in court. The defendant that has, the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner, claims it was wrongfully included in the case.
The complaints commissioner, its response says, has a “gatekeeping role” and doesn’t “conduct investigations or decide misconduct allegations on their merits,” nor does it “have authority to engage in broad, system-wide investigations” under the Police Act.
Complainants are sometimes vilified, their careers stifled and their motives questioned.
Nicole Patapoff, an RCMP officer in Burnaby, B.C., complained about harassment by a firearms instructor who told her to “get a bottle of Windex “¦ and just start cleaning” to improve her trigger finger strength. Later, she claims the instructor made inappropriate comments about her appearance.
She took the issue to the force’s Independent Centre for Harassment Resolution, which was set up after sexual harassment scandals in the federal force, but she was unsatisfied with how it handled her complaint, and sought a review in the Federal Court of Canada.
After the details were reported in the media, she found an online post written by a former RCMP member who characterized her as hoping for a payout.
“As if I stuck my neck out like that to try to get money,” Patapoff said. “None of this was ever about money. It’s about wanting to just be treated like a human being.”
Patapoff said that even after former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache delivered his landmark report in 2020 entitled “Broken Dreams, Broken Lives: The Devastating Effects of Sexual Harassment On Women in the RCMP,” problems persist.
“Nothing’s changed,” she said. “The toxicity in the culture at the top is just, it’s very deep seated and it’s very systemic and I don’t know how to fix it.”
Patapoff and the RCMP settled the case before it went to a judge. She said the settlement meant her complaint was being “remitted to a new investigator for investigation,” which is the remedy she had sought from the RCMP.
For women in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, complaining about mistreatment by co-workers carries unique challenges.
An investigation by The Canadian Press that was published last month detailed what a group of B.C.-based surveillance officers said was a toxic work environment.
Two officers claimed they were sexually assaulted by a senior colleague, leading to them suing the agency. CSIS Director David Vigneault said at an employee town hall after the story’s publication that the service would create an ombudsperson’s office to handle workplace problems “without fear or reprisal.”
He also said the agency would release annual public reports on harassment and wrongdoing in the agency.
A former CSIS employee who worked in Ottawa for more than a decade, who spoke to The Canadian Press on the condition of anonymity, said making complaints at the agency is fraught with career peril in “such a tight community.”
“You have a community that’s the size of a high school, dating each other and drinking with each other and hanging out with each other and so the bonds are strong,” she said.
“Now I have a problem and I want to file a complaint, but who am I filing to? Your spouse? Your best friend? Your mentor?”
Revealing the identity of a covert officer is punishable by up to five years in prison
Rich, the law professor, said changing cultures at these organizations to better protect female employees will likely be a “very hard and long process,” but “that doesn’t mean that it’s not occurring.”
“It’s extremely hard to shine a light on the internal workings of policing or military or paramilitary organizations. They are secretive,” she said.
“It makes it even clearer that there may need to be some real deep reckoning in order to fix this problem.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2023.