Who would be a female Mountie?

Canada's police force has been rocked by a spate of allegations of sexual harassment against male officers

For more than 140 years it has been one of its country's most revered institutions, but now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has come under scrutiny after being hit by a wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations from within its own ranks.

The image of the Mounties has been tarnished by allegations that have been buried, in some cases, for decades. Last month, in a case that shocked Canada, Corporal Catherine Galliford claimed she was sexually harassed by colleagues for 16 years.

Cpl Galliford, from British Columbia, is a well-known face after serving as the spokeswoman for high-profile investigations such as that into the serial killer Robert Pickton. She alleged one officer exposed his genitals to her, and a boss insisted they travel together on work assignments to try to be intimate with her.

Most disturbingly, she claimed one superior – in front of other senior officers – described a fantasy to her in which she was stripped, gutted and hanged from a meat hook after Pickton tracked her down.

In April, she detailed her ordeal in a 115-page statement to the force. She said she "broke" after years of abuse and now had post-traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia, adding that she now rarely left home, had a fear of entering RCMP buildings and had resorted to drinking heavily.

Her allegations came as a surprise to many Canadians – for whom the Mounties have always been a source of national pride. Cpl Galliford described a culture of sexism within the force and a refusal to deal with that culture by its leaders.

After Cpl Galliford went public, a slew of other women started to come forward with similar tales of abuse. Former Constable Janet Merlo, a veteran with 20 years' service, came forward shortly after Cpl Galliford, alleging that she had also endured years of sexual harassment. Her abuse ranged from discovering sex toys on her desk to being reprimanded for getting pregnant. She said that she had "put up and shut up" for the benefit of the force.

Ms Merlo finally raised the issue by writing to senior managers, but became disillusioned when it took two years to get a response. "As far as I'm concerned, that told me everything you need to know about how serious the RCMP takes harassment on the job and what kind of priority it is," she told The Globe and Mail newspaper. She was discharged in 2010 on medical grounds; she said it was due to the harassment. But the allegations did not stop there.

Many of those coming forward claimed to have suffered from years of abuse. Krista Carle, with 20 years' experience, also stepped forward to allege harassment ranging from finding pornography on her desk to inappropriate touching by male colleagues. In 2009 she applied for a discharge on medical grounds.

This month the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a documentary alleging that four female RCMP members, including Ms Carle, were sexually assaulted by a supervisor in the 1990s. The women said the attacks occurred while working with the supervisor on different undercover operations.

Internal disciplinary proceedings were launched but, according to the CBC, their alleged attacker was merely reprimanded and lost a day's pay. The women sued the RCMP and in 2004 settled out of court. The force then announced a new anti-harassment initiative for staff.

The job of restoring confidence in the RCMP has fallen to its new boss, Bob Paulson, officially sworn in as Commissioner this month. Mr Paulson, with 30 years in the force, has been quick to engage in a damage-limitation exercise, vowing to make stamping out sexual harassment his top priority.

After a two-day summit with senior officers he announced fresh measures to combat the abuse. Officers engaged in "outrageous conduct" could be suspended before disciplinary proceedings started and there would be no "presumption of innocence". Mr Paulson also promised to promote more women to senior ranks, which are currently 90 per cent male. While he remained open to the idea of third-party investigations into some of the cases, he rejected calls for a public inquiry.

Canada's Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews, has asked an independent agency, the Commission for Public Complaints (CPC) against the RCMP, to review how the force investigates itself following "systemic failures to deal appropriately with sexual harassment". The CPC can only make recommendations to the force based on its findings and these are not binding.

But the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) has described the commission as "broken" and cast doubts on its ability to investigate the force. The association expressed concern that while files piled up, vulnerable female staff remained at risk in the workplace. The BCCLA would like to see an independent inquiry carried out by a respected judge.

Angela Marie MacDougall, of the Battered Women Support Services, said the spate of female Mounties going public could be "the tip of the iceberg". After Cpl Galliford spoke out, the charity, based in British Columbia – which is home to one-third of the RCMP – urged her fellow women within the force who may also have suffered abuse to call its hotline for advice.

Ms MacDougall told The Independent there had been "a massive spike" in calls, opening the door to the possibility of more revelations.

She said trust in the force had eroded following the trivialising of the issue of violence against its female members of staff.

Ms MacDougall also raised wider questions about the ability of the force to protect women of the wider population.

"If they can't take care of their own women, what can that tell us about the RCMP's ability to provide an effective response to any woman dealing with sexual violence in the larger community?" she asked.

Some Mounties believe only a labour union can effectively protect the rights and safety of its workers. Currently, it is the only non-unionised police force in Canada. Forming one in the RCMP is currently prohibited by law.

But that could change as the ban is being challenged in the courts by a group of Mounties. Cpl Galliford said such a body or group could provide much-needed support for officers who were at breaking point.

"You can call it a union... but it can't be an old-boys' club," she said.

She has encouraged women to "run like their hair is on fire" rather than consider a career in the RCMP. However, she applauded Mr Paulson's plan of action and insisted he was "on the right track".

Now she will watch the force closely see if it is serious about stamping out sexual harassment, she said. In an interview with the Canadian Press, she challenged her new boss to "walk the walk".

Royal Mounted Police by numbers

11,726The number of RCMP female employees.

29,235 The total number of RCMP employees.

8,500 Number of applicants to sit the RCMP entrance exam each year.

190 Municipalities policed by the Mounties.

122 RCMP police dog teams in Canada.