Behind the `Mountie' mystique, a modern police force

ROYAL Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Robert Simmonds didn't want to talk about his adventures as a young constable. He wanted the interview to center on the force he heads - how it retains its proud traditions but has changed with the times. But a friend recalls how young Constable Simmonds once ``got his man.'' It was in Strathmore, Alberta, in the mid-1960s. A man had held up a bank at gunpoint. The robber had a reputation - which turned out to be false - as a sharpshooter, able to throw a quarter into the air and bring it down with a pistol shot.

Mr. Simmonds tracked him down to a small town 100 miles away. When the local policeman was advised of the imminent arrest, he fled town. He was scared. Simmonds and his partner corralled the suspect in an apartment without a shot and brought him to justice.

Today, Commissioner Simmonds is more likely to be dealing with personnel appointments, an attempt to unionize the force, recruiting more Francophones or teaching French to Anglophones, making sure his men and (since 1974) women understand the rights of suspects under the five-year-old Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or setting up an automated fingerprint-analysis system.

The ``Mounties'' may be the most famous police force in the world. They were glamorized in many old movies, including a 1936 film starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. But, as Simmonds notes, ``We don't go galloping off on horses and paddling over waterfalls in canoes these days.''

But the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) still has its renowned ``Musical Ride,'' in which 20 members, dressed in their scarlet tunics and riding well-trained black horses, perform a cavalry drill.

Last year, thousands of visitors filled a stadium twice a day at Expo 86 in Vancouver to see them ride in disciplined order with their nine-foot staves bearing red-and-white pennants.

Competition within the 38,000-member force to get into the Ride is keen. The two-year stint, with its travel about Canada and often overseas, is a prized assignment. It is part of what the police force terms its ``public relations program.''

Mostly, however, the RCMP is engaged in the usual activities of what Commissioner Simmonds describes as ``a very contemporary, modern, and progressive police force.''

The Mounties battle illegal drugs and speeding on the highway. They track down murderers and maintain security at airports. They trace counterfeiters and illegal gaming operations. They operate eight modern forensic laboratories across Canada that serve the RCMP itself and other Canadian police forces. They guard the nation's leading political figures or foreign diplomats and search out ``boiler rooms'' (fraudulent stock sales operations).

The RCMP is more than a federal police force.

Under contract, it provides policing for eight of the 10 provinces (Ontario and Quebec, the most populous provinces, maintain their own police forces) and for some 200 municipalities.

The job is made somewhat easier by the great respect the Canadian public holds for the Mounties, enough to be portrayed on the $50 bill and some postage stamps.

Simmonds claims - and most Canadians would agree - that the force is professional, disciplined, and well organized. Most of its members have a college degree. They are well paid: Wages for a constable start at $29,000 (US$21,750) a year, and reach $38,500 (US$28,875) after about three years.

In general, the police are not feared in Canada (except perhaps by criminals). At demonstrations, Mounties can be seen talking affably with the demonstrators.

``Our whole approach is friendliness, cooperation,'' says Simmonds.

Altogether, Canadian police kill in the line of duty an average of 11 people a year. On average, only four policemen have been killed each year in recent years. Compared with the United States, Canada is a nonviolent society.

Key factors in Canada's low crime rate include not only the RCMP, but also the capable Canadian court system and, perhaps, the tough gun laws - the RCMP administers a central gun-registration system.

Simmonds says the excellent reputation of the RCMP ``takes a lot of living up to.'' Representatives of police forces from around the world visit the RCMP to see if they can find some training method or technique that they can duplicate to improve their own policing capabilities.

But there is one factor other police forces cannot copy - the glorious history of the Mounties.

``We are so closely connected with Canadian history and the development of our country that the RCMP is more than a civil police force,'' says Simmonds.

In 1873, six years after the Canadian confederation was formed, Parliament passed an act establishing a ``Mounted Police Force for the North-West Territories.'' A paramilitary force modeled after the Royal Irish Constabulary, it was trained and equipped for warfare on the Canadian plains.

One reason for the creation of the force was the wave of traders from the outposts of the American Northwest who at the time were crossing the border to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company in the foothill country of present-day Alberta. This area was the home of the Blackfoot Indians.

Some of these ``free traders'' had captured most of the Blackfoot trade, obtaining furs for rifles, ammunition, and cheap whiskey from Chicago and St. Louis distilleries.

The traders' names reveal something of their picaresque character - Slideout, Kipp, Standoff, and the most notorious of all, Whoop-Up.

One concoction they offered called for a quart of whiskey, a pound of chewing tobacco, a handful of red pepper, one bottle of Jamaican ginger, a quart of molasses, and a dash of red ink. Many of the Indians were quickly debauched and stripped of their pride and possessions.

In July 1874, the new force of 300 Mounties moved out of Dufferin, Manitoba, to locate ``Fort Whoop-Up,'' the stronghold of the whisky traders. It took some two months for the cavalcade of oxcarts, wagons, cattle, field pieces, and agricultural equipment to reach the foothills of the Rockies. The traders, forewarned, had fled.

The Mounties established several forts and brought law and order to Canada's western frontier.

Simmonds likes to tell other historical tales - for instance, of the RCMP role in maintaining the rule of law during the laying of the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1881 to 83 and during the Klondike gold rush that started in 1896.

After members of the force were given leave to serve in the Boer War in South Africa in 1904, King Edward VII granted the force the prefix ``royal,'' and it became the Royal North-West Mounted Police.

It was renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after the force restored civil power in a general strike in Winnipeg in 1919, which, it was feared, might lead to a revolution like that in Russia.

In Canada's frontier areas, the Mounties for many years fulfilled every duty concerned with civil authority.

They acted as mail carriers or compiled meteorological records. The force's surgeons tended to the medical needs of the local populace. Mounties recorded vital statistics, collected customs, and acted as Indian agents.

During the great land rush on the prairies before and after the turn of the century, the Mounties were enlisted to advise and assist the new settlers. The police became land agents, agricultural experts, welfare officials, and immigration officers.

In the far north, the Mounties operated regular winter dog-team patrols between Eskimo communities and trading posts, sometimes covering hundreds of miles. The small force in the north, reaching 70 by 1919, was sufficient to ensure that Canadian laws and sovereignty were enforced at a time when the location of the Alaskan border was in dispute.

The Mounties are given much of the credit for Canada's avoiding the Indian wars that troubled the American West when settlers arrived, thereby saving Canadian Indians from decimation.

There are many other historic stories of the bravery and determination of the Mounties. But, as Commissioner Simmonds puts it, the age of ``rescuing Indian damsels'' is past and the life of a Mountie today is generally more prosaic.

And they have their problems.

The Mounties made the news in March when a member of Parliament criticized the force for its internal policy on job transfers.

If two Mounties are married and one is transferred, the other may be left behind if no suitable position for the mate can be found in the new location.

``We try to accommodate them,'' Simmmonds says. ``But we don't hire married teams of Mounties.'' He suggests that two Mounties considering marriage give ``full consideration'' to difficulties they may face in the future because of job transfers.

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