Policing in Canada Part II: Gender and the RCMP

In early 1978, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Constable Dennis Onofrey was shot and killed outside a motel in Virden, Manitoba. The shooter also fired on Onofrey’s partner, Constable Candace Smith, who survived a shotgun blast to the thigh and abdomen. Rendered momentarily unconscious from the blast, Smith was unable to fire upon or apprehend the shooter before he fled the scene. The shootout made national headlines for a few reasons, not the least of which was the terribly unfortunate death of Onofrey. Smith too garnered a considerable amount of attention, but for unfair reasons that deserve exploration. In our previous post we briefly explored the history of policing in Canada with a focus on the development of the RCMP. Today we build on that history by examining gender conceptualizations of policing in Canada, as well as the connection between the RCMP and representations of Canadian national identity.    

Smith was criticized within the RCMP for failing to fire back at the shooter during the exchange of gunfire. At one point, the shooter had his back turned to Smith, but rather than shoot she ordered him to drop his weapon. Other male officers at the scene failed to take out the shooter as well, yet according to historian Bonnie Reilly Schmidt, media reference to their decisions were less potent because of gender neutrality. Smith was the first female RCMP officer to be shot in the line of duty, and the media coverage of her involvement in the shootout focused almost entirely on her perceived ‘inability’ to fire on the shooter. For some, the incident seemed to reinforce a perceived gender assumption that women were too ‘weak’ and/or ‘emotional’ for police work.  

Some critics of female police officers claimed their bodies made them unsuitable as figures of civic authority. By contrast, men were equipped with a strong and physical bodily frame, capable of supporting the capacity for mental aggression and reason. Smith’s near-death experience seemed to validate such qualities as standard to the virile RCMP, but her physical rehabilitation and return to the force suggests otherwise. In the 1980s and 90s, female participation in the RCMP grew at a steady rate. Following Smith’s lead, female officers contested any notion that suggested women were the ‘weaker’ sex. Capable law enforcement is not derived from perceived gender differences, but is contingent on individual resolve and passion for duty.  

Recent news coverage of the RCMP has revoked interest in the role of gender in Canada’s national police force, but today the focus has shifted. Female RCMP members are no longer critiqued in media for being too ‘weak’ to properly enforce law across Canada, yet recent revelations seem to suggest that discriminatory conceptualizations of female police officers still have a strong hold on the psyche of some.  

A senior RCMP communications adviser recently alleged sexual harassment and assault by a superior officer, becoming the latest to join more than 300 women across Canada who have made similar claims and who are seeking legal action against the force. The suit, which was first filed by former RCMP officer Janet Merlo, alleges widespread systemic discrimination by the force against female members. As of one week ago, Merlo is one of has 336 complainants to have allegedly suffered bullying and harassment throughout her career. Having come to a “sense of the magnitude of the internal problem at the RCMP with women in the force,” lawyer David Klein, who is leading the class action suit, recently admitted in an interview that he regularly grows less surprised with allegations against the force.  

Corporal Catherine Galliford, a former RCMP spokeswoman, is credited with opening the door for others. She first claimed sexual harassment in 2011, and since then hundreds of women have been encouraged to come forward with similar claims. Corporal Galliford has been on sick leave since 2006 and her case is scheduled to go to trial in February, but she has been open about suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from years of harassment while with the RCMP.

As the current case awaits trial, the RCMP remains tight-lipped on the issue, except to point out that all allegations remain unproven. This, despite a 2012 internal RCMP report which suggested that gender-based harassment occurred frequently to female officers of the force. The report was based on a study of female participants who made known their personal experiences with internal bullying. Colleagues and superiors were claimed to have verbally and sexually harassed female RCMP members. But according to Klein, in the two years since the lawsuit was initiated, one-third of the hundreds of women who have come forward with claims are still with the force.

Although allegations of harassment speak to issues that far extend beyond gender conceptualizations, the history of female officers calls into question the dominant (and perhaps idealized) image of the masculine RCMP as national protectorate. Canadians may be less concerned with national identity than others, but we nonetheless hold tightly to a shared sense of commonality that derives from attachment to recognizable tropes. The figure of the RCMP stands as one of the most recognizable symbols of Canada, and so it’s important to understand the contested past and present of that figure in the creation of national identity. At both an individual and collective level, the ongoing story of the RCMP reveals much about our citizenry and nationhood. These lessons are not new, and nor should they be taken lightly.