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Mounties should look back

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The old photo says it all. It shows D Division of the Mounties on horseback leaving Fort Steele, B.C., in August 1888. The superintendent, S.B. Steele, is wearing garb dictated by Ottawa -- a white pith helmet and tight jacket buttoned up to the neck. His men are not.

Many of them are wearing modified cowboy clothes -- wide-brimmed felt hats, kerchiefs and loose fitting jackets -- because the regulation outfit was useless for people on long patrols in all kinds of weather.

The photo makes it clear that the Mounties, a national institution:

-- Were always harassed by some people in Ottawa who loved bureaucratic regulations, but had no idea what life in the West was like.

-- The early Mounties were a success because they spilled coffee on the dumb demands and made necessary adaptations.

-- They never forgot, however, that the force's main job was to bring justice to Western Canada and not to get caught up in trivial pursuits thought up by people in Ottawa.

-- They went out of their way to establish good relationships with their main clients, the First Nations people.

At the first sight of First Nations people, the Mounties hauled their red jackets out of their saddlebags and waved them vigorously to make sure the aboriginals understood they were the Queen Mother's redcoats, not the hated bluecoats of the U.S.

As a result of the Mounties' difficult, dedicated work, Canada had the "mild, mild west," not the "wild, wild west" of our southern neighbours.

In November, the Mounties face some major challenges that, at base, are not much different than they had in 1873, the year the force was founded -- how to keep both Ottawa and their regional clients happy.

The RCMP supplies policing services to all the provinces and territories except Ontario and Quebec. For months, Ottawa has been trying to negotiate a new contract. In October, it announced it would withdraw officers in 2014 unless a new deal is reached by the end of November.

November is also the month in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper will announce a new commissioner for the force, replacing William Elliott, a career bureaucrat appointed in 2007. Elliott's management style helped persuade some senior RCMP commanders to leave the force.

The new commissioner will have to manage some major problems. The RCMP has a budget of $4 billion and 26,000 regular and civilian employees.

B.C.'s E Division, with more than 9,500 employees, is the largest of 15 divisions across Canada.

And that's where many of the problems are. They include the mix-ups in the Air India inquiry, the many months it took to catch serial killer Robert Pickton, the airport Tasering death of Robert Dziekanski and the upcoming perjury trials of the officers, another trial of an officer accused of using excessive force in two arrests in Kelowna and charges against four senior officers in Surrey of obstruction of justice, breach of trust and fraud.

Not surprisingly, some B.C. politicians are arguing the province should set up its own police force. Similar comments have been heard in Alberta.

In addition to these challenges, the new commissioner may have to deal with new employee associations that more closely resemble unions, new legislation that allows for a greater degree of civilian oversight and possible federal government budget cuts.

The early Mounties also had their difficulties, but because they were far away on the Prairies, hardly anyone heard about them. Many of the problems were the result of Ottawa's meddling.

The "great march west" in 1874, in which the Mounties travelled for the first time from Manitoba to Alberta, is a good example. Their "pillbox" hats were useless, their coats were too hot, their delicate horses couldn't stand up to the Prairies, their guides got lost and sometimes couldn't find water or good grass, their rifles were obsolete, they had major trouble hauling artillery pieces they didn't need and, to top it all off, they couldn't find Fort Whoop-Up, a booze fort that was their destination.

No one but writers like me remembers these muddles. What people remember is that some rugged, ably-led men convinced the people of the Prairies that the force was not an army of occupation directed by Ottawa, but a local service ensuring everyone got the treatment they deserved.

If the prime minister can appoint someone who can make that happen again, the Mounties' problems are behind them.


Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2011 A14

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