No One to Tell:
Breaking my Silence on Life in the RCMP
By Janet Merlo, Edited by Leslie Vryenhoek
218 pages, $24.95
Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven
Journalist Linden MacIntyre encapsulates the essence of No One To Tell in his introduction: “The institution Janet Merlo went to work for in 1991 was a troubled place.”
This memoir, part therapeutic retelling, part analysis of workplace harassment, lays out the whole sad story of a police force unable to change its values to encompass female members, undermined by males in management unable to offset a poisonous work atmosphere by courageous leadership. Has the RCMP under new management changed substantively since Janet Merlo was a fresh-faced recruit? Outsiders may never know. I’d say many RCMP worksites are still troubled places–and now perhaps feeling even more defensive in the wake of recent Mountie killings.
Janet Merlo, who grew up one of three Farrell children in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, learned on Christmas Eve, 1990, that she had been accepted into RCMP training. She already had a degree in sociology with a certificate in criminology. Eight months later, she was among 29 new Mounties completing the graduation ceremony at the RCMP training depot in Regina (formerly Pile of Bones), Saskatchewan. Among her fellow recruits was Catherine Galliford, who would one day gain media attention as “another of those bitches” who could not “hack” the demands of the force. (In November 2011, Galliford told a CBC reporter that, “If I had a dime for every time one of my bosses asked me to sit on his knee, I’d be on a yacht in the Bahamas right now.”)
From graduation, following RCMP policy to post members away from their home communities, Merlo went directly to the Nanaimo, B.C. detachment. In 1991 she believed “I’d joined one of the most amazing organizations in the world. . . . More than two decades later, I still carry that pride though it’s buried beneath years of disappointment.” That’s a controlled understatement. Once I finished reading No One To Tell, I could not help thinking that joining the RCMP pretty much ruined her life. It certainly contributed to her ill health and the destruction of her marriage.
Even though her Recruit Field Training in Nanaimo lasted only six weeks before she was on her own policing in the community, Merlo experienced more than usual new-recruit pranking because of her diminutive size and her Newfoundland accent. When she started to date Wayne Merlo, who was a municipal employee of the RCMP, she did attract the attention of her fellow officers: one of her supervisors told Wayne that she was “the perfect girlfriend–just the right height for giving a blow job with a beer balanced on my head.” And so it began.
Janet Merlo’s memoir is not a work of genre-challenging creative nonfiction, but it is a straightforward piece of personal reporting. Merlo takes readers through the increasingly noxious events as her life progresses: when she is pregnant, one of her colleagues starts a rumour she has had an abortion; when her pregnancy progressed beyond five months and wearing the heavy gun belt became risky, Merlo’s operational officer said “What the fuck am I supposed to do with you now?” rather than simply reassigning her to an office job.
The harassment and disrespect continued, but so did Merlo, gamely trying to make the force deliver the dream she expected of it. She had a second child and kept on trying to hold her marriage together, even when it became plain that Wayne was also under stress at work and was becoming mentally ill. The RCMP regulations are allegedly consistent with the Canadian Human Rights Act: Harassment is defined as “rude, degrading or offensive remarks or emails, threats or intimidation.” And the federal Treasury Board Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace states workplace harassment “will not be tolerated.”
However, William Elliot, the new civilian commissioner appointed in 2007, failed to respond to Merlo’s letter asking for “a new style of leadership.” With Galliford’s public declaration of abuse in 2011, Merlo had hope. In March 2012, Merlo filed a class-action suit in the B.C. courts. Within months, hundreds of women stepped with tales of abuse and career derailment. The lawsuit is now working its way through the courts.
Readers of Merlo’s story will end her memoir impressed with her strength: she has a new life now and is living with her nearly grown daughters in St. John’s, far from the scene of her humiliations. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has introduced new training protocols to confront the force’s 40-year entrenched sexism, but unless the force continues to focus on bullying based on race, gender or beliefs, the besmirchment of the RCMP scarlet will continue. As will the destruction of individuals who enter the force with hope and resign in despair.
Lynne Van Luven teaches creative non-fiction at the University of Victoria and is the co-editor of the anthology In The Flesh (Brindle and Glass).