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Dozens of female RCMP officers seek justice through class-action lawsuit

RCMP officers at the Pioneer Square Cenotaph November 11, 2011.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Lawyers are in the final stages of drafting documents to be filed in court as early as next week that are expected to set in motion a class-action lawsuit that threatens to further destabilize one of the most iconic institutions in the country – the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

At this point, 94 current and former female members of the force from every province have asked to join the suit that is seeking damages potentially in the tens of millions of dollars for alleged maltreatment on the job.

It's expected the number of women involved in the action will eventually be well over 100.

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Regardless of its outcome, the lawsuit, and the vast array of ugly harassment-related charges contained within it, is likely to provoke profound changes within the walls of an organization whose reputation has been shattered in recent years. New RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has vowed to investigate all harassment complaints thoroughly and take a zero-tolerance attitude towards workplace abuse going forward.

Lawyers in British Columbia and Ontario have been working on the case for months. The lawsuit will be filed in either B.C. Supreme Court or federal court on behalf of a couple of as-yet-unnamed officers. It will seek certification as a class action, which will allow others to join as plaintiffs.

It generally takes judges between one and two years before rendering a certification decision.

Vancouver lawyer David Klein, of Klein Lyons, said there are five tests a judge uses to determine whether the case qualifies for class-action status, including whether there are "questions of fact and law" common to all of the plaintiffs. He said in that regard, any female who joins the force is "guaranteed an environment that is free from gender-based discrimination and harassment."

A pledge all the potential plaintiffs assert was broken.

Mr. Klein, a class-action specialist, said this case is more complex because it involves a federal agency which receives legal protections that non-governmental agencies do not.

But Alexander Zaitzeff, a lawyer from Thunder Bay involved in the case, says it's difficult to imagine a judge not certifying the case given the universal nature of the complaints.

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Mr. Zaitzeff, a claims lawyer for 36 years, has been interviewing the past and present RCMP members looking to join the lawsuit. Over the course of his career, he says he's handled just about every type of personal injury case imaginable.

"And I have to tell you these are some of the saddest stories I've ever heard," he said in an interview. "We're talking about horribly broken lives here. What you often don't think about is the toll harassment takes on the families. Spouses are impacted, relationships and marriages can end. Kids are impacted.

"Some of the kids start drinking at younger ages. You see early onset anti-social behaviour. They see what's happening to their parent and they take on some of the same symptoms – it's known as referred post-traumatic stress disorder."

Mr. Zaitzeff, who represented families affected by the Dryden air crash of 1989 which killed 24 people, and the Vioxx drug case in the last decade, said the allegations range from sexual assault and harassment to bullying and daily intimidation. He said the members' stories will reveal workplace abuse so egregious it had some considering suicide.

Most class-action suits are settled out of court. Mr. Zaitzeff said the courts have awarded individuals anywhere from less than $100,000 to more than $1-million in harassment-related cases in the past. But he said not one person who has contacted the lawyers about joining the suit has asked how much money they stand to make.

They have, however, expressed fear of reprisals from co-workers should it be discovered they are part of the suit.

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Mr. Klein said the identities of the women are protected, if that is their wish. He said the only way they could be revealed is if the case proceeds to court and there are individual adjudications. But before that happened, the plaintiffs would have the opportunity to decide if they wanted to carry on or stop and protect their identity.

That could be four or five years after the action is commenced, as class-action lawsuits can take an excruciatingly long time to conclude.

Either way, Mike Webster, a psychologist who has treated some of the women who are joining the lawsuit, said he is impressed by their courage.

"They are coming from an organization that creates a culture of fear and intimidation," Mr. Webster said. "Those in command use their authority to intimidate others and discourage them from speaking out. It's all part of the para-militaristic hierarchy that exists. That's why so few step outside the group and criticize those in authority.

"But now these women have strength in numbers. And that is very assuring."

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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