The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP or simply “The Mounties”) is one of the most recognizable symbols of Canada. Around the world the picture of the tall and proud Dudley Do-Right man in a red uniform is what Canada brings to mind. In a 2003 Ipso-Reid poll, 84% of people in 72 countries around the world thought of the red-coated Mountie when they thought of Canada (they also thought of hockey and Eskimos).
Ironically enough, it was the rest of the world, notably the Americans, who made the symbol of the Mountie such a lasting brand and not Canadian society itself! The Mountie has since come to mean Canada for Canadians as well, but before the mid-20th century Mounties were going through constant changes.
The RCMP was first established in 1870 as the Northwest Mounted Police. As American Manifest Destiny threatened to swallow the entire North American continent, and Canada, a new nation with a new government, deciding to keep the northern half, a force capable of controlling, policing and defending the west was required. Canada was also racing the Americans with a railway line to the Pacific, and was blasting this gargantuan project through native lands, creating a lot of hostility and some open rebellions. A quasi-military police force was just the thing that was needed.
The west at the time was rugged, and the border with the US was incredibly porous. As American settlers moved into Canadian lands, they increasingly found patrols of red-coated men on horseback turning them away.
In 1895 the Northwest Mounted Police had their jurisdiction expanded to include the Yukon, which was experiencing a gold rush at the time. While American and British panners were allowed to flock to the Yukon, crime was not tolerated and thanks to the Mounted Police the chaos of the American wild west was never allowed to happen in the Yukon.
The Mounted Police gained much fame and prestige in the late 19th Century. In the US, especially, a whole genre of pulp fiction grew up around the exploits of these stoic officers who “always get their man”. The image of the red-coated police man on his loyal black horse, protecting the settlers from villainous cowboys and treacherous Indians alike, gained much popularity in the US, more so than in Canada.
In 1920 the federal government in Ottawa merged the Northwest Mounted Police with the Dominion Police (a much more contemporary but less-famous police force), creating the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The red uniforms and wide-brimmed hats of the Northwest Mounted Police, which had gained much fame in it’s policing of the wild western frontiers, was maintained.
In the 1940s and 1950s a series of comic books about the “Mounties” and starring Dudley Do-Right, the law keeper of the Canadian west, appeared and the RCMP grew in fame and prestige around the world. The unspoken code of the RCMP, of integrity and duty to the law, was inspired not by the force itself but by outside popular influences much as the code of the Texas Rangers was inspired by pulp fiction and early western movies. Whatever the reasons, by 1950 the popular image of the Mountie we know today was branded in people’s imaginations around the world.
Of course, the red coats and wide-brimmed hats and loyal horses aren’t helpful in modern policing. The RCMP is a unique police force in the world in that it provides policing services on a federal, provincial and municipal level, contracting itself out to the civil authorities much like a federally-funded mercenary policing force. Most larger cities have their own municipal police forces, and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario have their own provincial forces, but in most Canadian towns and provinces the RCMP can be found.
Because of the demands on a modern police force, the Mounties have traded in their horses for Dodge Chargers and Ford Crown Victorias, and their red uniforms for bullet-proof vests and combat boots. Their image as stoic keepers of the law has also been tarnished in recent years as they have become more brutal in their tactics, most notably with the tasering-death of a confused Polish immigrant in the Vancouver airport.
The Mounties also serve as Canada’s chief counter-intelligence force and were incredibly active during the Cold War. They liased extensively with the CIA and MI5 and were profoundly good at breaking into Warsaw Pact embassies and bugging them, so much so that the CIA kept a permanent team of RCMP on hand at Langley. Today the RCMP is working extensively in Afghanistan in counter-terrorism operations and training local Afghan police forces. The para-military aspects of the RCMP forced the Pentagon, in a 1972 war game exercise involving an imaginary attack on Canada, to comment “the RCMP in particular poses a very strong threat to any American advance into Canadian territory”.
The image of the Mounties remains strong in Canada, and every year at least 10 Mounties are killed in the line of duty, whether when chasing criminals or by Taliban bombs. When a Mountie falls, the entire country mourns the loss and great community shows of grief and gratitude are displayed during the funeral route. During a Mounty funeral the RCMP will once again don the old red uniforms and wide-brimmed hats.
The red uniforms and horses can still be seen, but for entertainment. The Mounties maintain a group for the tourists, and most popular of all is the Musical Ride. Superb manouevers on horses to music has wowed spectators across the country for three decades, and has gained popularity in the United States, Great Britain and created a strange craze in Japan. The traditional red uniform of the Mounties is a brand of Canada, even if it is no longer in use by the modern police force. Nevertheless, dolls, TV shows, commemorative plates and even a line of lingerie continues to keep the image of the stoic Mounty in the red uniform alive and well.
The RCMP Musical Ride is a fantastic spectacle of horsemanship, and has become famous in many countries, particularly Japan where the Mounties are met by hordes of screaming girls.
Mounties mourn four fallen comrades, killed when raiding a marijuana grow operation in 2007. The suspect opened up on the Mounties with a variety of automatic assault rifles.
The Mounties are a completely self-contained police force, with their own SWAT teams, counter-intelligence teams, psychoanalysis teams, laboratories and everything else needed for modern law-enforcement, making them one of the most efficient police forces in the world. Even today the Mounties “always catch their man”.
In 1922 the RCMP begain trading in its horses for cars. Today they continue this trend by staying on top of advances in law enforcement technology.
Canada is a big country with a lot of unsettled land. The RCMP began using helicopters in the late 1960s to help police the country.
It’s not all work and no-play for the Mounties. Their fame and ceremonial benefits are not lost on a wide audience, so Mounties are often called upon to add their touch to festivities, sports venues, and TV and film.