Cowboys and Mounties

CineMasterpieces.

One enduring embodiment of the American male is the cowboy. He is a rugged individual on the western frontier, living by skill of his hand and the sweat of his brow, voluntarily submitting to a cowboy code of honor and unafraid of defending his property with armed force if need be. Innumerable Western-themed movies and television shows have ensured that we all admire cowboys, or at least that we know one when we see one, dressed in some combination of the cowboy hat, bandana, leather vest, jeans, chaps, and boots, carrying a six-shooter or lasso, and riding his trusty horse. 

Wikipedia.

A Canadian male, by contrast, will find himself well reflected by the Mountie, that is, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A Mountie’s distinctive uniform of red tunic, Sam Browne belt, beige stetson hat, and dark blue breeches with a gold stripe down each leg make him instantly recognizable. Like the cowboy, the Mountie operates in the west of his country, and often acts independently, with a reputation of great competence and integrity, but there the similarity stops, for the Mountie represents state authority, not private enterprise. To this day the RCMP acts as Canada’s FBI, and in most provinces as the provincial police as well. That we are familiar with Mounties can also be attributed to cinema – “Northerns,” that is, Westerns set in the Yukon and featuring Mounties as the main protagonists, were popular between the wars.

The famous Marlboro Man. From The Lyrical Elitist.

This difference between the cowboy and the Mountie is one of the alleged fundamental differences between the United States and Canada. The difference is also reflected in the founding documents of each country. America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence values “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” while the British North America Act of 1867 was passed to ensure “Peace, Order, and Good Government.” It does seem to me, as someone who has lived in both countries, that Americans are more comfortable with private initiative, and Canadians with government intervention, than the opposites.

A depiction of the RCMP’s Musical Ride on the reverse of the Canadian $50 note, in circulation 1975-89. From the website of the Bank of Canada Museum.

As mentioned, Mounties enjoy a pretty good reputation. The idea is that they really do “maintain the right” (their motto), and they “always get their man.” The cartoon character Dudley Do-Right, from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-64), offers a lighthearted satire on this image, but his surname is fully in accord with it. That this idea was largely promulgated by Hollywood, and not by any Canadian organization, is even more remarkable. Canadians like to believe that Americans are only interested in themselves, and constantly rewrite history to make themselves the heroes of it. In this instance, though, they voluntarily burnished the image of the state police force of a foreign country, somewhat uncharacteristically.

This whole topic came to mind again recently, when I found our copy of Looking North: Royal Canadian Mounted Police Illustrations – The Potlatch Collection (2003) by Karal Ann Marling, an art history professor at the University of Minnesota. The Northwest Paper Company of Cloquet, Minnesota (i.e., nowhere in Canada!), sponsored an advertising campaign featuring the Mountie doing Mountie things, all in his bright red tunic to show off the superior quality of their product. The Mountie’s alleged qualities of integrity and courage also polished the company’s image.

The campaign, the brainchild of Chicago ad man Frank Cash, started in 1931, at a time when advertising agencies employed highly talented artists who could produce beautiful and realistic paintings on demand, and when the weekly newsmagazine (e.g. Life or The Saturday Evening Post) served as a far-reaching vehicle for them. Arnold Friburg, Hal Foster, and Paul Proehl were responsible for the three reproduced here.

As a born Canadian, I am proud that the Mounties enjoy such an upright reputation. Unfortunately, they haven’t always lived up to it, or so I discover from Wikipedia’s “List of controversies involving the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” Some choice ones:

• On the night of May 6, 1972, the RCMP Security Service burned down a barn owned by Paul Rose‘s and Jacques Rose‘s mother in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Rochelle, Quebec. They suspected that separatists were planning to meet with members of the Black Panthers from the United States. The arson came after they failed to convince a judge to allow them to wiretap the alleged meeting place.

• There have been many Inuit accounts related to the alleged killings of sled dogs during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as well as the impact of the federal government’s efforts during that time to relocate Inuit into modern settlements.

• The RCMP bombed an oilsite in Alberta October 14, 1999, on the instructions of the Alberta Energy Co. No injuries were caused or intended. The Crown lawyers, representing the government, accepted that the allegations were true. An Alberta farmer was blamed for the bombing.

• The Robert Dziekański Taser incident occurred when a Polish immigrant who arrived at the Vancouver International Airport on October 14, 2007, and waited 10 hours at the airport before being taken into police custody. He died after being tasered a total of five times by a group of four RCMP officers and then placed face down with several officers sitting on top of him.

• In October 2016, RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson apologized for what he referred to as “shameful conduct” by the organization. An internal investigation determined that up to 20,000 female officers and civilian employees since 1974 may have been the victims of harassment, discrimination, and/or sexual abuse.

On a more general level, “American historian Andrew Graybill has argued that the Mounted Police closely resemble the Texas Rangers in many ways. He argues that each protected the established order by confining and removing Indians, by tightly controlling the mixed blood peoples (the African Americans in Texas and the Métis in Canada), assisted the large-scale ranchers against the small-scale ranchers and farmers who fenced the land, and broke the power of labour unions that tried to organize the workers of industrial corporations.”

So, as ever, one must take care to examine both sides of an issue…

Addendum: A group of musically-inclined policemen from Windsor, Ontario calling themselves The Brothers-in-Law recorded a satirical song on the RCMP for their album Oh! Oh! Canada in 1965.

Addendum: How could I have forgotten RCMP Constable Benton Fraser, the main character of the television series Due South (1994-99)? This was a Canadian show, although set in Chicago. True to form, “Fraser is a strait-laced Canadian, and his faith in the honour and goodness of others tends to lead to interesting and humorous moments.”