CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 11 . . . . January 31, 2003
Mountie: Canada's Mightiest Myth begins with a black and white film clip, circa 1936. Nelson Eddie is crooning, "When I'm calling you-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou . . . " and Jeannette Mcdonald is enraptured at the singing Mountie, resplendent in red serge, America's favourite cop, brave, decent and true. That red serge tunic is one of Canada's most enduring cultural icons, a positive and immediately recognizable image of our country. At the end of the video, the current RCMP Commissioner reminds us that the Mountie symbol is an assurance that they "will do the right thing." But, have they always done so? Has the reality matched the myth?
In the 1874, a frontier police force of 300 men, commanded by Col. John French, headed west from Ft. Dufferin, MB. Clad in the red serge of the British army, they rode into a land populated by Indian tribes, Yankee whisky traders, and pioneering homesteaders. Their uniform represented order and civility, but the reality was quite different: men were scavenging for food, horses died, and both men and animals were often short of water. Positive public relations was part of the Mountie myth even then: French commissioned drawings which gave the public reassuring images of a frontier tamed by their courage and civility. Interestingly, too, Americans were responsible for forging much of the myth: an American newspaper claimed that the Mounties "always get their man" (they used the word "fetch," in fact) and the American artist, Frederick Remington always depicted them in their British-style uniform, even though their working garb was the buckskin of prairie outlaws. Theirs was a tough life, and they were a tough, hard-drinking lot, and discipline was difficult to impose on them. Still, they did a better job of maintaining frontier justice than did their American counterparts. Less successful was their relationship with Canada's First Nations. Originally mandated to help protect the western tribes, the Mounties were co-opted into serving as an arm of government policy, which lost them the trust of First Nations, forging a long-standing negative legacy.
The cachet of "Royal" was added to their name in 1904, and, as the twentieth century proceeded, popular culture, particularly the silent films, fostered the public image of fairness and decency. However, with the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, the government's perception of a "Bolshevik threat" led to the RCMP's entering the arena of covert action: they infiltrated ethnic organizations, labour associations, and groups thought to have leftist leanings. In 1920, they became the federal police force, and, by the 1930's, they were the provincial police force everywhere except Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. From 1922-1940, over 100 full-length films cultivated an image of old-fashioned ideals of order and decency; if nothing else, the RCMP uniform was always authentic, because the Commissioners actually maintained a technical consultant, and in Rosemarie, the men on horse riding behind Nelson Eddy really were RCM Policemen.
Other anachronisms were part of movie myth: even when the bandits were in cars, the Mounties always gave chase by horse. In reality, the RCMP maintained high levels of technical expertise, and with the Cold War and later, the unrest of the 60's and the October Crisis, alleged campus radicals and politicians were targets of surveillance. But, from the 1970's through the 1990's, the public image took a slight turn: women and, increasingly, visible minorities entered the force, and now their major role was as community police. The Mountie image is now a licensed trademark, its use carefully regulated, and its license fees flowing into a charitable fund.
Having a close friend who has been a career RCM Policeman, and having had the opportunity to visit the Regina Training Academy, I have had unique opportunities to see the men behind the myth. There is clearly more to the Mounties than the Musical Ride. And, like all police forces and all government institutions, it has not always "done the right thing,"although it is easier to perceive the right thing in retrospect than in the present. Still, the gap between the myth and reality is no greater than that of any other cultural construct, and this video does an excellent job of providing the contexts for both the creation of myth, as well as the establishment of reality.
History classes in grades 11 and 12 might really enjoy this very different perspective on the history of Canada's federal police force. And media studies teachers of classes at the same grade levels might also find this a useful resource in showing how media and politics can craft a myth from some tough realities.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.