Canada's Mounties, unlike U.S. counterparts, don't have an image problem

THE BALTIMORE SUN

REGINA, Saskatchewan -- Here on a prairie of Saskatchewan, in a mirrored hall hung with regimental streamers, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and a huge stuffed buffalo head, a young man in formation has just blotted his copybook. Badly. He has bent his elbows.

"Dixon, you lazy bum!" comes the bawl of an all-seeing drill instructor. "Go down and do 10. Nice and slow. Stay down and enjoy this."

Thirty-two men drop headlong to the glassy gymnasium floor for a set of push-ups, while the hapless Mr. Dixon, whose mistake has led to the whole group's punishment, is left to wonder why he ever sought admission to Canada's top police training school, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Academy.

"You'll find a lot of similarities between what you call [Marine] boot camp and what we call basic training," says Leo Boisvert, the man in charge of studies at the academy, which is known locally as "the Depot."

Indeed, until they learn to march, fresh recruits at this police academy are not allowed to so much as walk from place to place on campus; everywhere they go, they must trot, heads bowed. Nor can the prospective Mounties take the sidewalk. A new recruit is considered so green, so uncouth, so civilian, that he is under standing orders to stay in the street.

Subject a fledgling police officer in many parts of the world to daily abuse and you would expect him to emerge at the end of his training an

abuser himself, eager to inflict on the weak and unfortunate a taste of what he suffered on his way to the badge.

But here in Canada, where men and women wait for as long as a decade to be admitted to the Mounties' academy -- and where they then endure six months of scorn, psychological carrot-and-sticking and harassment from faculty and more senior trainees -- they emerge not thugs or "Rambo" wanna-bes but officers so well turned out and irreproachable that they are one of the country's leading tourist attractions.

The Mountie way ought to be of more than passing interest to police departments in the United States accused of using excessive force or otherwise abusing their powers. It is also of some consolation in Canada, a country always in search of itself and rarely able to identify true emblems of Canadian-ness with much conviction.

"It's interesting to see how significant the Mounties are in Canadian society," says Jim McKenzie, a journalism professor at the University of Regina who is writing a book on the national training academy here.

"This is a country that doesn't have a very high opinion of itself," he says. "There's a lot of sentiment about 'Who are we?' We're not really Americans, and we're not really Brits. We don't make heroes out of our prime ministers. We really don't know who we are. But by God, we've produced at least one good national institution that is worthy of admiration."

The Mounties, as it happens, are not generally called Mounties in Canada.

Canadians often as not refer to them as "the RCMP," and the Mounties themselves like to talk about "the Force." The Mounties name seems to have established itself in 1920s Hollywood.

Movie makers contributed more than their share to Mountie hagiography. They pictured the constables as gallant heroes who invariably chose institutional duty over love, food, even -- in a couple of pictures -- over their own twin brothers. The Hollywood Mountie's single, irresistible, fleshly pleasure seemed to be singing, which he usually did from the back of a horse. In fact, he did just about everything on horseback: plunging through blizzards, leaping off cliffs, picking his way over mountaintops.

In real life, the Mounties have not been mounted for years. The only horses the force keeps stabled today are a few trained animals meant for ceremonial precision rides.

Nor is there any "He always gets his man" motto in circulation. Rather, the Mounties' official saying is "Uphold the Right."

And the visitor coming to Canada in search of one of those scarlet-clad men on the Canadian government tourist posters is apt to be disappointed. Today's Mounties almost always go about their business in standard police uniforms, and break out the scarlet tunics, jodhpurs and Stetsons on state occasions only.

"The [Mounties'] approach to the job is exactly the same" as an American police officer's, says David H. Bayley, a State University of New York criminal-justice professor who has ridden in squad cars -- as a researcher -- on both sides of the border. Across Canada, Mounties serve as the equivalent of state troopers, county sheriffs, municipal beat patrol officers, FBI agents and customs agents.

The difference is the image: Hollywood myth-making aside, the Mounties are, in the national mind's eye, almost universally perceived as genteel and professional, while some of their American counterparts are now mired in broad perceptions of shame and doubt. Part of the reason for the different takes, say law-and-order experts, is that the Mounties are a reflection of the very stuff of Canada.

"My feeling is the cultural differences between the United States and Canada are more than we tend to give them credit for," says John Eck, associate director for research at the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington.

"The public in the United States and Canada have very different notions of what is the role of government. In the United States, people seem to think the government is something to be worried about. Canadians seem to have very much more the idea that the government is on their side. And that has a tremendous impact on the police."

Because the Canadian public generally thinks well of the RCMP, its constables tend not to find themselves in the nerve-shattering situations their American counterparts do.

Perhaps as a result, the Mounties seem to entangle themselves in fewer police brutality and abuse-of-power scandals, although they were found to have committed illegal break-ins, arson and other dirty tricks during the Quebec independence crisis of the 1970s.

Recent inquiries into Mountie behavior have revolved around relatively dry and forgettable themes, such as why the force chose to investigate certain people.

"What you saw in Los Angeles is an infrequent event up here," says John Berris, director of the Public Interest Advocacy Center, referring to the beating of motorist Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, though he adds, "I would not want to say it doesn't happen."

Canadian Indians, whose social and economic experience in Canada roughly parallels that of blacks in the United States, say they would much rather come up against a Mountie than with any other police officer; from the Mounties they expect fairer treatment.

When, for example, uniformed officers exchanged gunfire with a group of Mohawks who were trying to block a Quebec golf-course development last summer, the police in question were members of a greatly feared provincial force -- not the RCMP.

"When I was working as a crown attorney in the Yukon, I used to go down to the officers' mess," recalls Mr. Berris, remarking that at first he expected to find himself in the sort of place where cops would get down-and-dirty about their work. But not the Mounties.

"They would tell about how they would talk a guy into surrendering without violence," Mr. Berris says. "It was a matter of pride with them."

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