IN JULY 1874, 275 members of a new mounted police force rode 1,300km (800 miles) across Canada’s prairies, from Dufferin, Manitoba, in search of “Fort Whoop-Up”, a trading post in what is now Alberta. Their mission was to stop Americans from swapping whiskey for buffalo hides with the local Blackfoot Indians. Indigenous Canadians along the route whispered that the horsemen’s red serge jackets were dyed with the blood of Queen Victoria’s enemies. An artist rode with the Mounties. His sketches were published in the Canadian Illustrated News.
American journalists took up the myth-making, writing paeans to the 12 Mounties who bravely approached 2,000 Sioux warriors who had entered Canada after the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, seeking their submission to Canadian law. Hollywood made more than 250 Mountie-themed movies from the 1900s to the 1950s, including “Rose Marie” in 1936, starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald (pictured above). The films created the image of a steel-jawed hero who brought the law into the wilderness.
No real-life police force could live up to such an image. Certainly, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), formed by the merger in 1920 of the North-West Mounted Police with the Dominion Police, has not. Scandals over the past half-century have tripped it up. In the 1970s it conducted a dirty-tricks campaign against Quebec separatists, which included manufacturing evidence that separatists were acquiring explosives. It botched the investigation of the terrorist attack that destroyed an Air India plane in 1985. In the 2000s its top brass were caught rifling the pension fund.
Lately the RCMP has been engulfed by allegations of harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct. In July a female officer committed suicide after publicly complaining that she had been sexually harassed. In October 2016 the RCMP agreed to set aside C$100m ($75m) to settle a class-action suit brought by serving and former female officers, and apologised to them. Whistleblowers face abuse. One female officer said that she found a dead prairie chicken in her locker after making a complaint to senior officers in 2013 about verbal abuse. “It’s a crisis in leadership,” says Jane Hall, the head of the RCMP Veterans’ Women’s Council.
Until now, Canadian governments have been loth to reform an institution that has fiercely protected and marketed its image since its inception. In the 1870s constables who complained to the press could be sentenced to six months in prison. The RCMP sold marketing rights to its image to the Walt Disney Company in the mid-1990s, even as whistleblowers were being hounded out of the force. “Being an iconic organisation gives them a kind of pass,” says Christopher Murphy of Dalhousie University, who co-wrote a report in 2007 on RCMP governance.
That has not prevented all change. The RCMP allowed women to enlist in 1973 and handed domestic snooping to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in 1984. But, intimidated by the RCMP’s mythology and fearful of appearing to meddle in police work, Canadian governments have left the force largely alone.
The recent scandals have made that harder. On January 16th Ralph Goodale, Canada’s public-security minister, announced the first shake-up in the running of the RCMP since the creation of the intelligence service. It sets up a board of civilian experts who will advise the force’s commissioner, Brenda Lucki, on management (though not on police work). Such an “innovation in the structure of the RCMP” is a first for the force, boasted Mr Goodale. He said it would raise “the game in terms of quality of management”. Many independent experts had expected a bolder reform.
Canada needs a modernised RCMP. It is the country’s federal police force, fighting terrorism, organised crime and drug-trafficking and protecting the border. It is dealing with new challenges, such as opioids, cybercrime and new sorts of terrorism, Mr Goodale said. Its 30,000 members provide policing for eight of the ten provinces and for three territories. In 150 municipalities and 600 indigenous communities the Mounties act as the local police, issuing traffic fines and investigating burglaries.
Although their responsibilities have expanded, their structure and organisation are largely unchanged. The North-West Mounted Police was modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary, created in 1836 to enforce British rule in Ireland. Other Canadian police forces brought in civilian managers beginning in the 1980s and now report either to a civilian commissioner or at least a civilian advisory board. The RCMP, by contrast, remains a military-style organisation, reporting directly to the public-security minister. Its recruiting practices have been compared to those of a religious order. People join the RCMP when they are very young, which helps the force shape them to its ethos. Often these recruits lack university degrees. When it comes to promotions, rank and seniority matter more than competence.
At least 15 reports in the past decade, including two commissioned by public-security ministers, have concluded that the force needs more civilians in senior jobs and an independent body to investigate allegations of harassment and sexual abuse. “The RCMP’s approach to training, career streaming, promotion, and education has long ensured that the wrong people often end up in the wrong job,” wrote Christian Leuprecht of the Royal Military College in a recent report.
The Mounties’ rank-and-file are demoralised by the recent bad publicity, confused by sporadic attempts to reform and overstretched. After three Mounties were killed by a gunman in 2014 in Moncton, in New Brunswick, a court found the RCMP guilty of failing to provide adequate training and equipment. The Mounties’ budget has risen (to C$3.6bn from C$2.9bn two years ago) but not in line with their duties, the force complains. It is having trouble recruiting. In 2017, 12% of positions were vacant.
Mr Goodale’s reforms represent progress, but are less ambitious than many observers had expected. The new 13-member advisory board, which requires legislation to become permanent, will advise Ms Lucki on all aspects of management, including human relations, information technology and procedures for dealing with harassment. But it cannot compel her to follow its advice. Mr Goodale said that as minister he could order her to heed it. Ms Lucki called the board “a critical step” towards reform.
Missing from Mr Goodale’s policy was the creation of an independent ombudsman to deal with bullying and intimidation, a recommendation by experts such as Ms Hall. Mr Goodale may be planning further measures this year.
Hollywood’s romance with the Mounties fizzled long ago. The last big Mountie-themed movie was Dudley Do-Right, released in 1999, which was based on a bumbling cartoon character of the 1960s who rode his horse (called “Horse”) backwards. Mr Goodale is no doubt hoping that his reforms will begin to point the Mounties in the right direction.