'I just forged ahead': The story of one of Canada's first female RCMP officers
Published Thursday, January 31, 2019 4:47PM PST
Last Updated Thursday, January 31, 2019 6:08PM PST
When she was just 22 years old, Karen Adams’ dream came true. She was accepted into the first class of female recruits ever allowed to join the RCMP.
"I don’t think anybody, including myself, knew what that was going to be all about or what that was going to look like, and so I just forged ahead," she said.
It was 1974, a time when women were burning their bras and an explosive growth in feminism was in full swing. Against that backdrop, Adams thought allowing women into the Mounties meant they would be equals with their male colleagues.
She was wrong.
It was a lowly purse which first signalled how the RCMP viewed the women as disparate from the men.
When the first class of 32 female recruits arrived at Depot in Regina for training, they were issued purses and small guns.
"They were called snub nose revolvers and were supposed to carry our guns and our handcuffs in a purse, which was totally ridiculous," said Adams.
The battle against the purse was the women’s first fight against the establishment – and fight they did.
With the support of their firearms instructors, by the time they graduated from training six months later, the women were issued holsters.
The recruits were still given shoes with a block heel though, described by Adams as "granny style." Not ideal for running after suspects, but Adams did it anyway.
"I chased down a fellow in my first posting in Thompson, Manitoba in my heels," said Adams, laughing as she recalled one of her first busts.
The most recognizable symbol of the Mounties, the traditional red serge dress uniform, was off-limits for women.
"We were given skirts to wear and instead of the traditional red tunic that the men wear, we were issued taupe panty hose, short skirts and a blazer type red jacket with a white polyester turtleneck shirt," said Adams.
"They kept saying it was because they wanted to make sure that we kept our femininity, but in reality I think it’s they didn’t want women to disgrace the tradition of the uniform."
The dark side of being female on the force
After graduating from Depot, Adams had barely settled into her new job, when she experienced some of the best and worst her male colleagues had to offer.
She met fantastic mentors who took her under their wing.
"I worked with some great, great guys. Actually, my whole career I worked with some very, very good men," explained Adams.
But she was in Thompson less than a month when a supervisor showed up at her apartment.
"I did not know who he was. I didn’t know him, but he was in an RCMP uniform and the long and the short is that he raped me," she said.
It happened again. The third time, she fought him off. She was too scared to report it.
"Because I always thought, ‘Who is going to believe me?’ I’m the new kid on the block, I’m a female and he’s well established in the detachment and in the area."
Adams said she just buried the sexual assaults deep inside and went to work, carrying out her duties, loving the job itself.
Except when sometimes the people calling for help didn’t want her help.
She would answer the detachment phone with her rank and name, and when someone asked to speak to a police officer, she’d explain she was one, but it wouldn’t end there.
"They’d say ‘No, I want to talk a real policeman,’ and I’d say ‘Well, you are talking to a real policeman,’ and they’d say ‘No I want to talk to a man,'" and at first, if there was a man in the office, I’d hand it off and then after awhile I started saying ‘I am a real police officer. It’s me or nobody.’"
Breaking new ground
For years, the RCMP made it just as clear they didn’t want women doing men’s jobs either.
"To be in the musical ride, impossible to do that. To be a dog handler, impossible to do that because you were a woman. Impossible, impossible,"
More than anything she wanted to be an instructor, her dream was to teach and inspire new recruits. That was also impossible.
"Every year, during my performance appraisal, I’d say I want to go back to Depot to be an instructor. No, never happen. Never happen. Never happen. Then finally, in 1988 the force decided, well maybe we need some women as instructors at the training academy, so they picked eight women from across Canada to go to the training academy and I was one of those eight chosen to go."
It was a dream come true, as was the realization that in general, women had gained significant ground within the force.
Perhaps the most profound indication of change came just a couple of years later, when female officers were finally given the same red serge as the men.
"I remember looking in the mirror and putting the Stetson on my head and just bawling and saying you know it took 16 years, 16 years to be perceived visually as equal to my male counterparts and that was a real ‘aha’ moment for me because we had to work twice as hard as our male counterparts just to get even close to the recommendations, or to the 'that-a-boys' that our male counterparts got," said Adams.
Progress was being made and women started to fill out the ranks and move up the ladder.
The future for women in policing seemed bright, and publicly Adams was all smiles, but eventually she could no longer bury the past. It was destroying her.
Adams was suffering from PTSD as a result of the sexual assaults by her superior, but wasn’t diagnosed until 2008.
She still didn’t talk about it publicly though, never mentioning it when she was profiled in various articles about women in policing.
It wasn’t until she sat down to write her book, a memoir entitled Woman in Scarlet, that she reflected on what happened, and realized it had to be part of her story.
Still a long way to go
Now retired, and living in Cobble Hill, Adams said she is proud to have helped pave the way for other women who want to dedicate their lives to law enforcement.
But the road is still far from smooth. More than 3,000 women came forward in the Merlo-Davidson class action lawsuit against the Mounties over harassment and discrimination.
In 2016, the RCMP settled the suit for $100-million and the commissioner apologized, admitting flat out they had failed the women.
According to Statistic Canada’s last count in 2017, women made up one-fifth of the force, but whether that is something to boast about, or woefully inadequate, is debatable.
As for Adams, despite everything she had to overcome, she wants people to understand her journey with the RCMP was one of hope and passion. A story of accomplishment and achieving goals in a field she loved, often with the help of supportive male colleagues, who pushed her to be her best, and backed calls for equality.
Both of her dreams came true, first becoming an RCMP officer, then becoming an instructor.
"Definitely the highlight for me was teaching young recruits and inspiring them to be the best that they could be,"
Her advice then, and now, remains the same, to never give up on your dreams, or let anyone tell you that you can’t follow your passion.
"There’s always a way to get to where you want to go. It might not always be a straight line, could be kind of zig zagged, but if you want to get to where you want to go you can definitely do it."