Say the word ``Mountie'' and you conjure up a host of images: stalwart young men in scarlet tunics astride noble black steeds; an ardent Nelson Eddy serenading Jeanette MacDonald in the frozen Yukon; stoic treks by dog sled in pursuit of lawbreakers. But today's Canadian Mountie is a different breed.
Gone are the red jacket and the horse -- traded in for the trappings of modern life.
Back in 1873, when Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, commissioned 300 men on horseback for what came to be known as the ``Great March West,'' he probably had no idea that these men would evolve into a sort of living Canadian national monument.
The Northwest Mounted Police, as they were then called, were charged with stamping out liquor trafficking among the Indians and establishing law and order in the western territories. Their first target as they rode forth: Fort Whoop-Up, a notorious nest of western whiskey traders.
From their original headquarters at Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan, the Mounties expanded and formed detachments throughout the western provinces. In 1904 King Edward VII dubbed them ``Royal'' for their services to the crown, and in 1920 they merged with the Dominion Police, becoming what they are today: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Now under the jurisdiction of the Canadian federal government, the Mounties are a national police force whose duties are roughly comparable to those of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, state police, and municipal police forces combined.
Today's 15,000 uniformed officers (approximately 500 of whom are women) are contracted out to all but two of Canada's provinces, and to many large cities as well. The scarlet jacket, still a hallmark of the Canadian Mountie, today is used solely as a dress uniform for ceremonial occasions, such as a visit by the Queen to Canada.
As early as 1929 the automobile had replaced the horse as a form of transportation for the Canadian police force, and in 1966, equitation was dropped from the required basic training for Mounties. One breeding farm is still maintained outside Ottawa, but the coal-black horses raised and trained there are now used exclusively in the famous ``Musical Ride.'' A familiar sight to any Canadian, this expert drill team consists of 32 officers in full-dress uniform and their horses, performing intricate movements to music. Made up of volunteers from within the force, the ``Ride'' travels for much of the year throughout Canada and often to the US and Europe.