Const. Justin Harris was suspended, and eventually went on paid sick leave.
Const. Justin Harris was suspended, and eventually went on paid sick leave.

Illustration by Nicole Rifkin. 

RCMP Officer Accused of Sexual Assault Has Been On Paid Leave for 16 Years

The Mountie, who was never charged, has not worked since the mid-2000s. He's not the only RCMP officer who has been on paid sick leave for years.
May 5, 2021, 11:00am

A few weeks before her death, a 22-year-old woman known legally as CC went to the RCMP detachment in Nanaimo, B.C., to give her fifth interview detailing sexual abuse she alleged she had experienced at the hands of Const. Justin Harris.

Harris and CC had met in Prince George, nearly 900 kilometres north, when she was a teenager and he was an undercover cop. CC said Harris touched her inappropriately and that they’d had paid sexual encounters that had turned physically violent, all of which he denied. But the conduct case had been tossed on a technicality, and the force, readying for its appeal, called CC in for another interview. 

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She was a young Indigenous woman who knew how to turn adversity into humour. Like her father, CC used jokes as a crutch to find the positive in uncomfortable moments. Her upbringing had been difficult, but even when she felt depleted CC had this reserve of empathy that awed her family.

In that final interview, CC was 98 days sober and the corporal interviewing her could tell, remarking upon her clear eyes and general aura of good health.

They were well into the interview when the corporal tried, delicately, to ask CC if “for whatever reason” she might have been untruthful with investigators. 

CC said she knew when she was using drugs “a lot of (her) stories are maximized” and that her time in rehabilitation had helped her realize not everything she thought happened had actually happened.

But when she was asked whether the four inappropriate interactions she had outlined might perhaps have been with a person other than Harris, CC was resolute.

“Not these ones,” she said.

Less than one month later, on April 1, 2007, CC died from natural causes. In a matter of weeks, the RCMP dropped their case, lifting Harris’ suspension. Harris had hoped to return to work soon afterwards. He’s always maintained his innocence—highlighting the inconsistencies in CC’s statements as proof in his favour.  Already, prosecutors had twice declined to bring charges on the basis a conviction wasn’t likely.

CC’s sister, KC, and her father, Bob, were devastated. “I think it’s a cover-up,” said KC, whose own allegations were part of the disciplinary charges Harris faced before the force dropped its case.

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“There is no reason for it to get closed just because she’s gone,” KC said.

“The RCMP followed all the processes and procedures that were available at the time,” said spokesperson Robin Percival in an emailed response that did not directly answer questions about why the force dropped its appeal. Instead, Percival noted the case occurred before the introduction of the RCMP Accountability Act in 2014—an act that has been repeatedly criticized for its lack of transparency.

Still, in the 14 years since the story made headlines, Bob took solace in the hope Harris would never work again. Technically, he hasn’t. 

Harris segued from a paid suspension to paid sick leave for psychological issues he directly links to the force’s handling of the allegations. His lawsuit against the force, filed in 2008, has stalled while the RCMP attempts to medically discharge him—a lengthy process now in its seventh year. In total, he has been paid—but not working—for close to 17 years. As of last September, Harris is one of 17 Mounties who has been on paid sick leave for at least four continuous years. That figure doubled from eight Mounties two years prior. 

While it’s not clear from RCMP records how many of those leaves are tied to conduct cases, a force psychologist told the RCMP’s Civilian Review and Complaints Commission that off-duty sick was better known among Mounties as “off-duty mad.” As the CRCC documented in 2017, “a number of members reported to the commission that harassment and bullying, and the resulting stress, were the primary reasons they went off-duty sick.”

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“I would have fought it from that day if I knew he was being paid,” said Bob. “It’s wrong, it’s morally wrong.”

In his first media interview, Harris blasted Canada’s national police force for an investigation he said was rooted more in protecting its own image than in fact. 

Harris told VICE World News he believes a proper investigation would clear him, while KC and Bob—whose last name is being withheld because of a publication ban on CC and KC’s identities—said if the force had done its job he’d be behind bars.

The allegations have cast a long shadow. The fallout still reverberates almost two decades later, but what accountability might possibly still be recouped remains to be seen. 

“The RCMP has made considerable efforts to settle this matter,” Percival said, declining further comment on the basis of Harris’ ongoing litigation. Where Harris sees exonerating details, CC’s family sees expressions of a criminal justice system that’s long failed Indigenous peoples.

It’s clear that “somebody needs to be held accountable,” said Rob Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University who frequently comments on RCMP issues.

“You can’t walk away from that as an organization.”

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In 1999, Mounties in Prince George, B.C., became aware of soon-to-be substantiated rumours that a local judge was sexually abusing underage Indigenous girls whose cases he would rule on in court.

From their legal files, Judge David Ramsay knew they were young with limited education, had trauma-filled histories featuring abusive adults, and struggled with mental health and addiction. He promised one girl that he would “let her off” if she kept quiet about his abuse, and to another, he said nobody would believe her if she spoke out. To CC, he threatened death.

Ramsay met CC in 2000. CC, whose parents had an acrimonious split and a complicated history, wanted to stay a government ward. She was 15 years old and Ramsay, the presiding judge, was well aware.

A few months after he ruled on her case, he picked her up and drove her to an isolated road just outside of town. According to court documents, he said he would pay her $60 for a blow job but then, “near the end,” tried to physically take back his money. CC stumbled naked from his car, at which point he told her he would have her killed if she told anyone and then drove away, “her clothes still in the vehicle.”

Those details can be recounted with surety because Ramsay pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual abuse in 2004. His crimes are widely considered to be among the worst ever perpetrated by a sitting Canadian judge. In sentencing Ramsay, a judge had harsh words for his former colleague’s sexual exploitation of young women:

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“He sat in judgment of them for the very behaviour in which he himself was instrumental in causing them to engage, when he had full knowledge of their personal circumstances. For the administration of justice and for these young women a greater tragedy is difficult to imagine,” Associate Chief Justice Patrick Dohm said. 

And yet, the teenage girls, CC included, didn’t just speak up about Ramsay. In their early statements to police, several girls accused RCMP officers and other unidentified community leaders of similar sexual abuse. 

CC gave her first statement in September 2002 to Cpl. Judy Thomas, the Mountie credited with breaking open the Ramsay case. CC said she first encountered Const. Harris after a car chase that ended up with the two men she was in the vehicle with being arrested. She was let go. But CC alleged Harris felt her up. At the time, she said she had a bit of a crush on Harris. She’d never had sex with the officer for money, but CC told investigators she heard other girls had. 

In November 2002, Thomas sent a report to her supervisors summarizing the case to date and noting that allegations had been made against nine Mounties, some of whom had already left the force.

Her supervisors sent a request to the anti-corruption unit to “develop a course of action.” And yet, by its own account, the RCMP didn’t really begin investigating its own until more than a year later. That delay had serious consequences.

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In her emailed response on behalf of the RCMP, Percival did not acknowledge the delay at all, saying only that “the RCMP launched an investigation into allegations involving a judge and other persons of authority in 2002” (emphasis hers).

Project E-Prevails, the task force the RCMP created to look into the allegations against its own, wasn’t even created until after Ramsay was sentenced to seven years in prison (where he later died from cancer).

At that point, CC had given additional statements. In one, she said she had exchanged money for sex with Harris—in contradiction to her earlier statement—and that the encounter became violent and led to Harris throwing her out of his truck.

Harris denies this, saying he ran into her in the lobby of a fast food restaurant “and that’s it.”

In September 2004, two months after the task force’s first operational briefing, it recommended Harris face criminal charges and be disciplined. Harris was put on paid leave. When Harris did go before the RCMP’s conduct board in October 2006, the allegations were not weighed on their merits. The case was tossed on a technicality.

The federal legislation governing the RCMP makes it clear the force has one year from when it becomes aware of the identity of a member “who is alleged to have committed the contravention” to initiate code of conduct proceedings. Because the force sat on allegations against its own for more than a year—until after Ramsay’s sentencing—it all but guaranteed the discipline charges would be thrown out.

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The delay is hard to explain. A redacted copy of a file review of Project E-Prevails obtained by Harris and shared with VICE World News provides an overview of the delay but no explanation.

At the time, the RCMP said it disagreed with the ruling and was appealing it (the force dropped the appeal after CC’s death). In 2007, the Province reported a former assistant commissioner told the newspaper the RCMP didn’t act on the allegations because the underage sex workers in the “small town” had named so many officers.

Harris’ own hypothesis echoes claims by other Mounties involved in high-profile RCMP screw-ups, such as the 2007 Taser death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport (which is now being investigated by Ontario Provincial Police).

Harris believes he was a scapegoat at a time when the public’s negative attention was riveted on the image-conscious force.

“When David Ramsay pled guilty and the story originally hit the media, the RCMP went into panic mode because they were sitting on information where a number of accusers pointed the finger at police officers,” he said.

“The RCMP is very capable of carrying out very complex investigations. Where the RCMP struggles is with showing any sort of weaknesses or wrongdoing publicly, they just refuse to.”

CC is dead. Cpl. Judy Thomas, the single Mountie on the case (now retired) about whom CC’s family and friends speak well of, did not return voicemails or text messages. And the few names community advocates offered up who were involved in the case are reluctant to speak, either outright rebuffing requests citing post-traumatic stress or worried about the implications of putting their names on the record.

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The file review of Project E-Prevails found “discrepancies and contradictions” among the statements of the girls, noting that investigators found many of them “extremely reluctant to come forward.”

Harris and CC, based on her statements, agree they met for the first time during the 2000 car chase. But where CC says he touched her inappropriately, Harris’ notes say a colleague dealt with CC. 

Harris says the only other time he encountered her was that moment in line at McDonald’s. CC, in her final interview, said they’d run into each other four times. 

CC first said they’d never exchanged sex for money, then said there had been a blow job that had turned violent when she said no to sex, and then said the blow job had turned violent when he tried to take the condom off.

Those discrepancies, in conjunction with prosecutors twice declining to bring charges on the basis a conviction wasn’t likely, are what Harris sees as exonerating.

“The most important aspects of her allegations (the allegation itself) continually changed and evolved,” Harris said. That, in conjunction with her saying she had a crush on him, is to him a “red flag.” 

“I was never criminally charged,” he said. “It’s easier to sacrifice me… The people at the top do not want to be held accountable.”

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But what Harris sees as absolving, CC’s family sees as problems with how the criminal justice system, police in particular, respond to cases involving sexual assault.

The “overwhelming majority” of sexual assaults do not get reported to police in Canada: 83 percent. They’re complicated cases that “require victims to cooperate fully,” as a research report from the federal justice department highlights. “This, in turn, requires that victims trust that the criminal justice system will treat them with fairness and respect,” says the report.

“The RCMP is committed to improving relationships with Indigenous communities, supporting survivors and families, and ensuring that investigations are robust (and) professional and result in justice for the victims and their families,” Percival said.

She said the force has introduced new training courses on gender-based violence and trauma-informed approaches for members, in addition to increasing “consultation and engagement with Indigenous leaders and elders.” 

Percival also highlighted the RCMP’s 2017 plan to ensure more effective and compassionate sexual assault investigations moving forward. She noted too the force is working to create sexual assault investigations review committees in each province. Those committees will involve outside experts reexamining investigations to “ensure that best investigative practices in cases of sexual assault are followed.” 

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But trust is particularly hard to earn from Indigenous peoples, given the proliferation of national inquiries highlighting systemic racism within government and police—systemic racism the RCMP’s current commissioner Brenda Lucki is only now, 14 years after CC’s death, beginning to publicly acknowledge.

In her final interview, three years after Ramsay pleaded guilty, CC spoke about her reluctance to come forward about him.

“If you were to tell me the facts, you shouldn’t have anything to fear,” a constable in that interview told her. CC said she wasn’t afraid; she just wasn’t comfortable. 

She’d been victimized too many times in her life by men. She didn’t trust the RCMP to get her justice. That doesn’t surprise Bob, her dad. He remembers when a Mountie came to pick her up to give a statement. 

“Unbeknownst to me, they took her to Vancouver instead of Nanaimo, put her in jail because they said she was a hostile witness,” he said. “They traumatized her even before they could interview her.”

Percival said, “Significant efforts and steps were taken to support the victims and ensure they had access to services and programs, especially given their age and the nature of the allegations.”

Research shows that only between 2 and 8 percent of allegations that do get reported are false. Harris will admit it’s a complicated case to investigate, but he’s adamant the girls are lying. “Whatever those numbers are, there is also a fraction of those cases—whatever that fraction may be—that are false,” he said.

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KC said CC wasn’t a liar and neither is she. Her allegations against Harris were also recommended by Project E-Prevail  for criminal charges. 

Const. Joseph Kohut, another Mountie who was suspended along with Harris, was eventually cleared and returned to work and, in 2007, sued the force for malicious prosecution. It’s unclear what became of his lawsuit. Kohut, who retired as a sergeant in 2015, declined comment via a friend. 

KC, who in her first statement told investigators she never knowingly had sex with police officers for money, later said Harris had harassed her for years and that twice she’d had sex with him for money, but that she hadn’t recognized him. The first time, she said it had become rough once she did recognize him, ending with him kicking her out, and the second time, she said she’d only become aware once she saw a photo of him on the wall.

While the investigators found her credible enough to recommend charges, they did note that none of her descriptions of the residence matched any of Harris’ residences. Harris has denied all of KC’s accusations. 

KC still struggles intensely with trauma. Bob, who is not her biological father but treats her like his daughter since she’s CC’s half-sister, says it’s almost a cycle: she’ll do really well and seem to be processing but then she’ll relapse and repeat.

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“It’s self-destructive,” KC said.

She doesn’t understand why the force dropped the appeal after CC died.

“He isn’t a victim,” she said of Harris.

Harris said he assumed his way back to work would be clear once the force dropped its appeal. But in August 2007, the deputy criminal operations officer for the force reviewed the file and told the province’s commanding officer there was “a body of evidence” to support charges and that if he had the power to lay charges himself he would. 

A few weeks later, Harris’ staff representative wrote to him saying that he was told the RCMP was not prepared to have him back “due to an untested allegation.”

Percival said Harris “was to be assigned a new job posting,” but did not offer any information as to why that did not happen. She reiterated—again—that the case took place before the 2014 Accountability Act.

Fourteen years later, Harris said he feels like his life is in a holding pattern and he’s lost a piece of his identity. His stepfather was a Mountie, and from his first day on the job in 1993 the force instilled in him this feeling of being part of a team, part of the Red Serge.

“I want to see the public demand an explanation from those at the top as to why it’s gone on for 16 1/2 years. The taxpayers need to know this,” he said. 

Bob, who has struggled with reliving his daughter’s painful, final years, also wants an explanation. “I hope it does her justice,” he said.

Follow Jane Gerster on Twitter.