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"The scarlet tunic! What a story!”: Daniel Francis on how the Mounties became a national symbol

"To read the history of the Mounties' roots is to ignore the force’s modern origins as a domestic spy agency working clandestinely to stamp out legal, if radical, political activity."

Mounti Bobble Head

Much of the mystique of the North has been associated with Canada’s red-coated Mounted Police. The Mounties are a northern police force and most of their heroic tales (for example, the St. Roch, the Lost Patrol, the Mad Trapper) are about northern adventures. They are as identifiably Canadian as John Bull is British or IKEA is Swedish.


Canada is the only country in the world that has transformed its national police force into a tourist attraction. Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, standing guard in their gaudy scarlet outside public buildings, are photographed at least as often as Niagara Falls or the Bluenose II. The Mountie is a ubiquitous attendant at public events. So familiar is the image of stern-faced moral rectitude that the force was able to strike a deal with the Disney corporation in 1995 to market it. Mounties are the face of Canada for most people around the world. “How often have we… heard visitors ask ‘Where are the Mounties?’” noted a tourism promoter in 1937. They symbolize Canada, said another, “just like Uncle Sam symbolizes the United States.” In 1938 the Canadian Government Tourist Bureau produced a sixty-page, full-colour promotional booklet, Canada Calls You, spilling over with illustrations and information for the tourist. What image appeared on the cover? A Mountie with the Rocky Mountains in the background. In 1952 the Mountie was one of four symbols that a federal-provincial tourism conference decided might represent Canada in all advertising for tourists. (The other three were the maple leaf, the crown and the Union Jack; unanimity could not be reached and so the idea of adopting a single symbol was dropped.) When members of the Monty Python comedy troupe dressed as red-coated Mounties and posed in front of a mountain backdrop to sing their famous “I’m a Lumberjack” song, no one had to be told where they were or who they were impersonating. In other words, in the eyes of Canadians and of the world, the Mounted Police represent Canada.

Mountie Postcard

Historically, members of the force were their own best publicists. The origins of the RCMP go back to 1873 when the federal government created the North West Mounted Police, a frontier force sent to protect the First Nations from American whisky traders and to pacify the prairie West in preparation for the expected influx of white settlement. Their success on this mission became part of our cultural mythology. Thanks to the Mounties, Canada is a “peaceable kingdom”; according to the myth, Canadians are law-abiding and deferential to authority because authority, symbolized by the Mountie, is just and benign. Part of the appeal of the Mounties as a national symbol is that they differentiate Canadians from our neighbours to the south. Unlike the United States, we tell ourselves, Canada had no “wild west,” no ingrained history of violence, and that was because of the Mountie. The Mountie of legend has a Boy Scoutish quality that is as basic to our national personality as flag-waving is to the Americans or the stoic stiff upper lip is to the British.

Zane gray Cover

The heroic legend of the Mountie emerged from the pages of the many memoirs, histories and dime novels that were written about the force. The adventures of the frontier police force that “always got its man” proved irresistible to popular writers, who churned out Mountie books by the hundreds. “The scarlet tunic! What a story!” gushed one author in Chums, a British adventure magazine for boys. In 1935 the American adventure novelist Zane Grey loaned his name to a popular comic strip, King of the Royal Mounted, which appeared in North American newspapers for twenty years. At the same time Hollywood exploited the image. Pierre Berton calculates in his book, Hollywood’s Canada, that close to half of all the movies Hollywood has made about Canada feature Mounties in the leading role. “To an international audience,” writes Berton, “Canada and the mounted police are inseparable.” The first Mountie movie, a silent film called The Cattle Thieves, was released in 1909. In 1922 alone the industry produced twenty-three features starring the Canadian redcoats, “the most dapper police organization in the world” according to the publicity for one of them. The most famous Mountie movie of all was Rose Marie, a 1936 feature starring Nelson Eddy as the crooning cop and Jeanette MacDonald as his love interest. Berton recounts how MGM executive Louis B. Mayer brought all his influence to bear so that actual members of the RCMP could be used as extras in the film. Later the fictional Mountie moved onto American television, most notably as Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, a mid-1950s CBS series that recast the legend of the Mountie for a younger generation. “No matter what the cause,” intoned the narrator, “nor how remote the region, the North West Mounted Police stood true to their motto, ‘Uphold the Right.’” These examples may seem whimsical, even trivial, but they illustrate how pervasively the image of the Mountie imprinted itself on popular culture.

Pierre Berton makes the point several times in his book that the RCMP shunned publicity and only very reluctantly allowed itself to be dragged into the Hollywood spotlight, but this is disingenuous. The force may have disliked publicity that misrepresented its history or made it look foolish, as Hollywood tended to do, but in general the Mounties co-operated with any promoters who wished to make them an essential part of the Canadian identity. The RCMP also never shied from burnishing its heroic public image. A case in point would be the Musical Ride, the regularly staged public display of precision drills and equestrian skills used to remind us of the force’s historical roots on the western frontier.

Cover Sargeant Preston of the Yukon

In truth, the modern RCMP has little to do with the romance of the original mounted force. Its history is more complicated than that. In its early years the force survived several near-death experiences as the government debated whether it continued to serve any useful purpose. At the end of World War I the force, by then renamed the Royal North-West Mounted Police, again verged on dissolution as many of its members had resigned to join the armed forces. It seemed to Ottawa that a second police agency, the Dominion Police, which had been active in eastern Canada since 1868, might as well take over national jurisdiction. However, at the end of the war, as the force was about to be relegated to history, a wave of national paranoia gripped the country. Canadians feared that Bolshevik-inspired elements in the labour movement were plotting to overthrow the government and install a made-in-Moscow regime in Ottawa. Far-fetched as this sounds today, it seemed all too real to authorities in 1919. One of the ways they responded to the perceived threat was to give the Mounties the task of gathering secret intelligence about the activities of left-wing political groups and labour unions. So effective was the newly invigorated force in carrying out this job that in 1920 the government combined it with the Dominion Police to create a single new force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Ever since, the Mounties have traded on their historic roots as backwoods policemen pursuing their man on dogsled and horseback to produce an image of the stalwart defender of the right. But this reading of history conveniently ignores the force’s modern origins as a domestic spy agency working clandestinely to stamp out legal, if radical, political activity.

The British social scientist Benedict Anderson coined the term “imagined community” to describe the modern nation state. According to Anderson, a country finds its identity and promotes unity through shared images. Canada is a northern wilderness. Canada is a cultural mosaic. Canada is a peaceable kingdom. These are just three of the images that Canadians believe describe themselves and their society. Another word for these images would be myths, not because they are untrue but because they express important cultural ideals and values. They seem to explain our history and give meaning to our national existence.

land of the maple leaf postcard

From the beginning, tourism has played a central role in the development of many of Canada’s organizing myths. In their quest for visitors, the railways and the government produced picture-postcard images that over time came to represent the nation. As a relatively young country, Canada needed a way of asserting itself in the world, of projecting an identity. To a large degree, the CPR provided these defining narratives and traditions, presenting folkloric images of Old Quebec and wilderness images of prairies and western mountains. The image of the red-coated Mountie was added to the mix, along with the tragic image of the noble but vanishing Indian, and pretty soon the country had a set of symbols that seemed to say “This is Canada.”

These images were then used by tourism promoters in posters, brochures, books, photographs, even movies, and presented to travellers as Canada. Obviously it was a partial version of the country, one designed to attract the interest of people seeking novelty, relaxation, diversion and adventure. Canada was much more than its Rocky Mountains or its noble police force. Nonetheless, many of the images that were created to sell Canada to tourists became indelible components of the way Canadians came to understand themselves.

Selling Canada Cover

This is an excerpt from Daniel Francis' Selling Canada: Three Propaganda Campaigns that Shaped the Nation, recently published by Stanton Atkins and Dosil Publishers. Francis was born and raised in Vancouver, and travelled east on the Trans-Canada Highway in 1971 to live in Eastern Canada (Ottawa and Montreal) for many years. He has since returned to the West Coast where he makes his living as an historical researcher/writer. He has written 15 books, principally about Canadian history. Titles include The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, and National Dreams: Myth, Memory, and Canadian History. He was editorial director of Horizon Canada, a Montreal-based, bilingual, illustrated history of Canada in magazine format, and the mammoth Encyclopedia of British Columbia, hailed on its appearance in 2000 as one of the most important books about the province ever published. His book L.D.: Mayor Louis Taylor and the Rise of Vancouver won the City of Vancouver Book Award in 2004.

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