VANCOUVER – Amid allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment, the RCMP brass have recently made at least one change that will please female officers — the force is now allowing women to wear pants and boots with all their formal uniforms.
It’s been almost a decade since an unnamed female officer filed a grievance because she was denied boots and pants to wear with her formal Walking Out Order, instead of a skirt and leather pumps.
“The grievor is a female member of the force with 17 years of experience,” says a file the RCMP External Review Committee provided to The Canadian Press.
That request dragged on with no resolution.
In January 2003, she submitted a requisition for a pair of boots for the dress uniform that members of the force can wear to social functions. The following month, her request was denied with an explanation that boots and spurs were not an approved order of dress for female members, whose Walking Out Order is comprised of a long blue skirt and black leather pumps.
“She felt that the dress policy was discriminatory since it differentiated between male and female members. In her view, the policy was outdated and needed to be modernized. Moreover, she added that wearing skirts was not part of her lifestyle,” says the review committee summary.
Her complaint was twice denied on the grounds that she was aware upon her graduation from RCMP training of the uniform requirements and should have filed her grievance then.
The External Review Committee disagreed with that, but found her case still did not constitute discrimination under the law.
“The mere fact of having different Walking Out Orders for male and female members is not prohibited by the Canadian Human Rights Act,” the committee wrote to the RCMP commissioner, with whom the final decision rests.
However, the report signed by committee chairwoman Catherine Ebbs said the grievance raises a reasonable question.
“Why does the force not permit female members to choose between the male and female Walking Out Orders?” she asked in the report dated Feb. 9, 2011.
The commissioner has not made a decision in the case, and while the official uniform regulations still require a skirt for female officers in Walking Out Order, a spokesman for the force said woman can now get pants and boots on request.
Staff-Sgt. Maj. Sylvain L’heureux said among the problems was that the pants and boots are expensive, difficult to source and only available in men’s sizes.
But the grievance prompted a discussion of the issue, and the decision was taken recently that women who request the pants should be accommodated. He did not know the specific date that decision was made — “It’s fairly recent” — and it will take some time for the adjustment to be incorporated into the dress manual.
“Where we stand is that it was recommended that we should approve that for females,” said L’heureux, who is responsible for dress and deportment for the RCMP in Quebec.
“If they want to wear them, they’re going to be men’s boots.”
The RCMP uniform is a national icon, the image of the Mountie in red serge is synonymous with the True North.
While the first female officers were sworn in on Sept. 16, 1974, it wasn’t until 1990 that they were officially allowed to wear pants and boots with their red serge dress uniforms.
“There has been over the years a number of appeals to the RCMP from women who would like to have the dress pants for the Walking Out, rather than the skirt,” said Bonnie Reilly Schmidt, a former RCMP officer and historian who is completing a doctoral degree at Simon Fraser University on the history of women in the RCMP.
There are women who prefer the skirt, she said, but most would like to have the choice.
“Of course, the RCMP is a very masculine organization and there’s quite a few theories as to why the skirt is still in place. Some of these things are very slow to change in the RCMP.”
The force is facing at least one class-action and several other individual lawsuits from current and former female members alleging discrimination and sexual harassment.
The rash of allegations prompted the force to announce earlier this year that it would train 100 officers to investigate complaints of sexual harassment, and elicited a pledge from Commissioner Bob Paulson to root out “dark-hearted behaviour” among the ranks.
“I think it’s good that it’s in the public spotlight and I wish him well. He’s got a huge task on his hands and it’s not going to be easy,” said Reilly Schmidt, who served in the force from 1977 to 1987.
She experienced some harassment, yet “I had a very positive experience,” she said of her decade of service.
The grievance cases referred to the RCMP External Review Committee offer a glimpse into the range of issues faced by female Mounties, from earning less than men doing the same job to harassment complaints that were dismissed or downplayed.
“Changing a skirt, of course isn’t going to change the culture. It’s an embedded issue and it’s tied up with ideas of masculinity and femininity in Canadian culture and I think the RCMP mirrors a lot of other industries,” said Schmidt.