The ugly American political discourse on gender and RCMP apology to women officers are grim reminders of how far we still have to go.
RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson, left, answers a question during a news conference, as plaintiffs Janet Merlo, centre, and Linda Davidson look on, in Ottawa on Oct. 6. Paulson has apologized to hundreds of current and former female officers and employees for alleged incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
What a pitiful, pathetic, poisonous week it has been in American politics.
Never have we seen a presidential candidate ‘trash talk’ women before and rarely have we witnessed such a public display of foul mouthed language. Never have we seen one presidential candidate attack another because of her husband’s infidelities. Never have we seen female political pundits scorch the airwaves with pointed barbs at each other. Never have we seen such an overt display of unfettered misogyny. Never have we seen a Twitter hash tag which reads “Repeal the 19th,” a reference to the 19th amendment to the American Constitution that provides men and women with equal voting rights. No, never have we seen politics through such a brutal and shocking gender lens.
However, while we are all fixated on and horrified by one boorish, immature, narcissistic loudmouth, Canadians would do well to reflect upon some deep-rooted sexist challenges of our own.
We should be equally horrified by recent revelations from a highly revered institution, the RCMP. The disclosures have led to the federal government’s offer of an unprecedented compensation package of potentially $100 million of taxpayer’s money, to an estimated 1,000 female Mounties, who allegedly faced incidents of bullying, harassment and discrimination dating back to 1974.
The RCMP’s website proudly describes Sept. 16, 1974, “when 32 women across Canada simultaneously took the oath to become police officers, fundamentally changing the RCMP forever.” One of those women was Bev Busson, a highly respected officer, who became the first female commissioner in 2006. But other female officers did not have a similar trajectory of success.
Instead, hundreds of women who had chosen to devote their careers to the safety of others were forced to deal with their own safety. Every person who has ever been harassed, whether once, or in a pattern, knows the sick feeling that accompanies the harassment.
Living on a knife’s edge, the victim faces tough questions. Will the harasser will try again? If so, when and how? Should the abuse be reported? To whom? Could such a report impact future promotions? And, if female officers were treated with harassment and disdain by some male colleagues, what might have happened to female prisoners? Exactly, how far did the rot spread?
We may never know all the answers. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, in a tearful, historic apology, described the failure of the RCMP and the hurt caused to their officers, but in an effort to avoid two class-action law suits, a former Supreme Court Justice will now independently and confidentially examine the various allegations.
While the confidential nature of the process is understandable to avoid financial consequences and stress to the victims (and to the legal system), there remains the question of accountability. Will anyone be punished? And most importantly, how do we make sure this never happens again?
The RCMP has already made several systemic changes but it will require more than updated legislation and new codes of conduct. Sensitive leadership, strong vigilance, robust oversight coupled with equally robust internal controls, transparency and individual courage, will all need to be integrated into a new and improved RCMP. There is one word that can’t be mandated or forced. That word is respect.
Recall that 87 years ago, five Canadian women fought against the odds for the right to legally be named as persons and therefore eligible for a Senate appointment. The Famous Five were successful, opening up a political path to Canadian women. Yet, years later we are left to wonder how much further we have to go. When it comes to respect and dignity, we still struggle. Sick misogyny is apparently alive and well.
Respect is elusive, in part, because of popular culture, where women are often glorified as sexual objects. To counter that perspective, we need smart sex education in schools, skilful gender training in workplaces and strong legal tools.
Tomorrow is Person’s Day in Canada. Celebratory events and speeches will take place across the country. A panel of stellar women will speak in Ottawa, including Ontario’s premier, Kathleen Wynne. Women make up one third of the Senate and more female appointments are no doubt on their way. It’s all good, positive and hopeful.
But on the way to improved statistics, electoral success, and high-profile appointments, we need to continually find our resolve and determination, just as the Famous Five did. We need to burrow down into our culture, to expose any rot and to demand and expect respect, not only as women, but as persons. We’ve earned it … over 87 years.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.