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RCMP to train 100 B.C. officers to investigate sex harassment within force

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's top RCMP officer says he's talked to hundreds of women who work for the force in British Columbia and they've told him the work environment has to change, so he's appointing 100 Mounties to investigate sexual harassment complaints in an effort to improve a culture condemned by some as intolerably sexist.

The investigators will form the crux of a broader plan being hammered out under the direction of RCMP Deputy Commissioner Craig Callens in response to the internal workplace assessment he initiated earlier this year after several high-profile accusations were made public.

Cpl. Catherine Galliford, a former media relations officer, was the first to speak out about enduring sexual harassment and abuse from senior officers and she touched off a series of suits including a class-action that could involve more than 100 women.

Callens said the allegations became public only weeks after he took command in British Columbia and he set about finding out what was going on.

He said he convened focus groups that involved about 400 female RCMP members across the province over two months aimed at uncovering the extent of gender-based harassment.

"I acknowledge, without reservation, that we have some issues that we need to deal with," he said Sunday in an interview with The Canadian Press. "I'm committed to ensuring that we take the type of action that our employees deserve."

With his own 21-year-old daughter applying to become an RCMP member, Callens agreed that the environment that has been allowed to persist is not one in which he'd want her to work.

"I have responsibilities to the members and employees of the RCMP. . . and that is to ensure there is a healthy and respectful workplace for them to come to every day," he said. "As a responsible parent, there are additional interests for me to ensure that the changes that we need to make get made."

Lawyer David Klein filed a suit in late March and said he expects more than 100 current and former female RCMP members will join. The suit is on behalf of Janet Merlo, a 19-year officer from Nanaimo, B.C.

Merlo alleges she endured sexist comments, pranks, derogatory remarks and double standards, including getting yelled at when she told her supervisor she was pregnant.

"I'm sure that any steps the RCMP takes to reduce the amount of gender-based harassment and discrimination within the force would be positively received by my clients," Klein said Sunday.

The internal assessment ordered by Callens was conducted by the RCMP diversity co-ordinator, who was tasked with establishing the depth and scope of harassment and asked to compile recommendations towards bringing it to an end.

It found there is "broad-based discomfort" and a "lack of confidence" in the current reporting system, that the process takes far too long and that victims lack communication after making a complaint, Callens said.

The focus groups also felt the force had failed historically to clearly define the difference between workplace conflict, harassment and other issues that arise when supervisors talk about aspects of a members' performance, he added.

But he added that it would be an "exaggeration" to say harassment is rampant in every aspect of the force.

Among recommendations Callens will now consider include the creation of a reporting system outside victims' chain of command, the establishment of a confidential means for victims to seek information and advice, and that the force does more harassment awareness and prevention work.

By the end of May, 100 current RCMP officers in the 6,500-member B.C. force will be trained to investigate harassment complaints by an external professional from Alberta in addition to their regular duties. The investigators are both women and men and hold a series of different ranks.

A further recommendation suggests hiring designated harassment and conflict resolution investigators on a full-time basis.

Currently, the force has only two dedicated harassment officers, as well as professional standards investigators who typically examine matters of conduct related to the RCMP Act but who assist the harassment officers if required.

"Having 100 of these (new) individuals out there to not only conduct the investigations but to bring some focus to bare on what we need to do to resolve the conflict is critical in addressing whatever it is that is occurring on a much more timely basis," Callens said.

That could include initiating code of conduct investigations, he said.

Callens said there's a possibility the force will see a spike in complaints when the new system is implemented because victims may more willing to come forward. He said he expects to have more details of the plan to address sexual harassment hammered out over the coming weeks. He wasn't immediately able to provide the exact cost of the new training.

"It would be irresponsible for me to suggest that I can make those changes overnight," he said. "It's going to require a long-term commitment and I'm certainly committed to that."

Callens said he has shared the assessment findings with national RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who vowed to address complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace when he was appointed.

"I think that as we develop new systems and approaches in this province, they will be considered for their application in other parts of the country," Callens said.

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