What’s it take to be a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer?
The RCMP, commonly known as the “Canadian Mounties,” is one of the most iconic and recognizable police forces in the world. They’re known for their brilliant red jackets, Dudley Do-Right hats, and snappy, knee-high riding boots, and as an internationally respected law enforcement agency. They also operate one of the most rigorous bootcamps around. Do I have what it takes? I’m going to find out by living the life of an RCMP cadet–for 24 hours.
Accommodations here are Spartan. This place is like a bad highway motel–a cinderblock room with an open armoire, a utilitarian desk, chair, and gooseneck lamp, and a small flat screen TV. The basic shower/bath combo comes with a single sliver of Jergen’s soap, a small bottle of soap and conditioner, and thin white towels. Incongruously, the bed is piled high with chenille-covered pillows that match a brown, white, and aqua striped duvet. In one corner are two heavy metal boxes with padlocks for stashing valuables, including regular members’ service pistols. Outside my window, the air rattles with the sound of planes taking off. This place isn’t meant for comfort; it’s for learning.
The RCMP Academy, known as “Depot Division,” has been training men and women, more than 60,000 of them here in Regina, Saskatchewan, for the past 127 years. The six-month physical, intellectual, practical, and emotional program is famously grueling and this is my first a taste of it.
Earlier, we downed some institutional-style food in the dining room–a green salad, heavily breaded pork cutlets, overcooked spaghetti with a pasty white sauce, green peas, and a too-sweet chocolate bar filled with yellow custard. Gourmet dining isn’t on the agenda at the RCMP Training Center.
On the agenda is work from early morning until 11 or midnight every day for 24 weeks. After dinner, we join Troop 7, a group of 32 young cadets starting their third week of training. In a cavernous gymnasium, 21 men and seven women, average age 27, are dressed in street clothes and running shoes. Glen, a slim young man who looks like a banker, stands in front. He’s the Right Marker, the cadet chosen to lead the troop.
“Troop atten-shun,” he barks, drawing out the last syllable and two lines of cadets shout back “One.” They stomp one foot, feet landing in a heels-touching position, and toss back their shoulders and stand ramrod straight with eyes forward, fists at the sides with thumbs-forward.
“One, two, three…” cadets shout in turn, each snapping his or her head to the left. It’s impressively military precise.
When a young cadet flubs, the leader shouts, “Ten pushups.” In support, the entire troop does pushups too.
Tanya, a 28-year-old from Montreal, takes me and Mandy, the other new cadet, to the back of the gym to teach us drill basics–rest, at ease, attention, group up, double time. It’s double time, a fast, shuffling semi-jog that leaves me breathless. With arms bent at the elbows and held about two inches from the chest, we begin – one, two, three, four, five, and stomp on six. Tanya has us double time up and down the gym. Each time we’re about to stop, she orders, “Halt” and we march four more steps, ending by lifting the right leg 90 degrees and stomping.
The stomping looks and sounds impressive. And it’s more difficult than you’d think. This group has been practicing together for the past three weeks. Mandy and I have been practicing for three minutes and our inexperience shows.
Ready or not, we join Troop 7, filing into line by height. Our leader immediately introduces moves we haven’t practiced and Mandy and I stumble. We’re a half step behind the others’ crisp movements. Finally, we double time and fall into rhythm, shuffle-step one, two, three, four, five, stomp, repeat. Around and round we go, our leader turning the troop by calling out “right wheel, left wheel.”
Double timing is how cadets move around campus. To and from classes or meals, they double time as a group. Everyone in the troop wears running shoes. In a few weeks, they’ll lace-up combat boots and, in few weeks more, they’ll earn the iconic, knee-high dress boots worn with the classic RCMP red jacket, flared breaches, and, of course, that Dudley Do-Right hat.
When we break, I’m hot and breathless. The cadets surround us, introducing themselves and assuring us we’re doing fine. Tomorrow we parade at o’dark thirty before the drill sergeant, the infamous Corporal Penny. A female cadet agrees to meet us to make sure our uniforms are just right. “We’ll be inspected,” she says omniously. “If it’s not right, they yell.”
Before turning in, I iron my shirt and blue pants. The shirt requires a crisp crease extending from nose of the buffalo’s patch to the cuff. I do my best, hoping my jacket covers any ironing errors.
At 10:00 p.m., I shut off the light. The alarm is set for 4:30 a.m. Real boot camp starts tomorrow. I drift off trying to remember the parade commands.
O’dark Early Boot Camp Day
It’s early, really early when the alarm startles me awake. As I pull on my blue uniform, I long for a cup of in-room coffee.
I dress, but can’t figure out the clip-on tie. I pull on the police cap, making sure my eyebrows don’t show, and look in the mirror. I’m startled by the image reflecting back at me: A middle-aged, female police officer.
At 5:25 a.m., Corporal Dan Toppings raps crisply on my door. He attaches my tie and straightens the clip and, with Mandy in tow, we head to the dorms. Regulations require long hair be worn in a special bun and hair can’t touch the uniform’s starched collar. One of the female cadets has volunteered to do up Mandy’s long hair.
In the women’s bathroom, the women are combing, pulling, and twisting their hair into place and applying lots of hairspray to keep errant hairs from drifting. Short hair like mine is easier, but long hair is one of the few feminine things these cadets have in this largely male world.
Hair fixed, we meet the other cadets in a ready room. Judy, the cadet-hairstylist, rubs the brim of my cap vigorously with a nylon to remove fingerprints. Cadets eagerly help one another. Their six-month journey is grueling and they make it together or not at all. It breeds a rare closeness that creates lifelong friendships.
Judy notices we don’t have blue epaulettes identifying us as cadets attached to our shirts and jackets. We’ve each been issued only one set, so she suggests we attach them to our jackets.
Outside we line up. It’s dark and cold enough to see my breath. Our Right Marker, Glen, puts us through our paces. “Atten-shun…eyes right…at ease…rest…okay, double time, look sharp.”
We shuffle, shuffle, stomp semi-jog through the quiet streets. Glen counts off, “One, two, three, four, five, six…”
We shuffle-stomp one block, two, three, six, and more–right into the gym where we practiced last night. There are several other troops and Drill Instructor Penny, a small woman in a form-fitting jacket, flared riding pants, and shiny, knee-high leather boots. She carries a long, brass-topped stick she tucks smartly beneath her arm.
“Atten-shun,” Glen calls out and we snap to. “At ease.”
Drill Instructor Penny looks over the first row, then instructs us to remove our jackets. She wants a look at our shirts, the one I spent an hour ironing last night.
She walks down the line, tapping her stick in her hand. She stops in front of a cadet. “That shirt looks like you slept in it. Did you iron it?”
“No mam,” the cadet sheepishly answers.
“Join me here tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.,” she says calmly, then moves along the line. Infractions are met with an “LA” or “Learning Assistance,” corrective action that usually involves early morning drills or other work. Get too many of them and you’re in serious trouble.
Dressing down prepares cadets for the real world of police work. When someone calls an RCMP officer “pig” or other choice name, training helps them resist the urge to react. It’s a difficult, but effective process.
Corporal Penny’s boots echo as she inspects the front, then the backs of our uniforms. Penny stops in front of Mandy. “Where are your epaulettes cadet?” she demands.
I can’t hear Mandy’s answer.
“You’re impersonating a constable and that’s a federal offense. I could throw you in jail right now.”
Mandy clears her throat, but doesn’t answer. She looks straight ahead.
When the drill instructor gets to me, I know what’s coming. She pauses and coolly assesses my shirt’s missing epaulettes. “Ah, another constable,” she remarks sarcastically.
I stare straight ahead, afraid to breathe. Blessedly, she moves on.
After inspection, my troop double times to breakfast, a quick 20-minute affair. I scarf down weak coffee, eggs, bacon, and toast with my mates at a long cafeteria table.
The average age for a cadet is 27. I’m 61. The oldest cadet to graduate was 57. According to Corporal Toppings, older cadets make excellent officers. “They know more about life,” he says. “They make great decisions in the field, which is what the RCMP is all about.”
Marc, a cadet with grey hair, is 42 and a former middle school physical education teacher. “I’ve always wanted to be a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman,” he tells me. “When I applied 20 years ago, they weren’t hiring. They’re hiring now and I thought why not go for it.”
Surely being a P.E. teacher has made the physical aspect of cadet training easier. “Not really,” Marc says ruefully. “I found out I wasn’t in great shape.”
Marc’s troop mates welcome him. “It’s like living in college dorm. There’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s only when I look in the mirror I realize I’m the old man.”
My next stop is a classroom where Assistant Commissioner Roger Brown, the camp’s Commanding Officer, greets an incoming cadet group. They’re dressed in crisp business casual clothing. Cadets are expected to dress professionally at all times, even during their off hours in town.
“If you have a positive attitude, work hard, and apply yourself, you’ll do well here,” Brown tells them. “I made it and so can you.”
Each table sports a small paper tent with the RCMP’s mission and guiding principles, which include honesty, integrity, and compassion. “You will fail if you can’t uphold these principles,” Brown tells the group. He recalls a cadet forced out after he lied about doing extra workouts recommended by his drill instructors. “It wasn’t that he didn’t work out; he lied about it. If he’d lie about that, what would he do when he got out in the field?”
On average, 28 of the 32 cadets in a troop graduate. Once on the job, RCMP officers usually give long service, many 30 years or more. Most serve all around Canada in multiple capacities. Some are posted to small communities in the Far North; others work in urban settings in traffic or drug investigation; some work here as instructors. Still others serve four years in the Musical Ride, the ceremonial division that represents the RCMP on horseback in parades or other functions.
“When you graduate, you join a special family, one that will be here for you the rest of your life,” Brown says.
A One-Two Punch
In the Police Defensive Tactics Gym, Mandy and I don cotton Judo pants and RCMP T-shirts. We’re unsure if we’re wearing the pants backwards.
We join a class of cadets strapping on thick body armor and padded headgear. A female cadet ties on my padding. Then we jog around the gym.
“Stretch it out,” yells Steve, an incredibly fit-looking instructor. Cadets follow the teacher through arm and leg stretches. Then it’s jumping jacks, plank-style push-ups, and, finally, “RCMP push ups,” push ups held two inches from the floor. Mandy and I settle for knee pushups and, even then, by the time the instructor releases us, my arms are shaking.
“Pair up,” shouts the instructor, as the cadets pull on face masks and boxing gloves.
My plastic mouth guard feels like wearing shoes on the wrong feet. “Sorry,” says Corporal Toppings, seeing me wince. “Usually, they put them in boiling water to fit them.”
Toppings secures my gloves and Mandy and I pair off.
“Protect the computer,” Steve says, pointing to his head. “Keep your gloves up at all times.”
He demonstrates deflecting punches and we practice with one another. Neither Mandy nor I have boxed before and it feels foreign punching her. She giggles–until I land a punch that snaps her head back.
Mandy and I are soon sweating and breathing hard. We’re relieved when Steve calls us to gather round. He demonstrates more defensive moves and has us do more pushups. Then back to boxing.
We punch, deflect, bob, and weave. Mandy isn’t giggling; it takes too much air. We’re both sweating hard. After 40 minutes, I’m keen for the class to end, but Steve calls out, “The taller person in each group, move one mat over.”
Suddenly, I’m facing a real cadet, a woman who’s a foot taller and 30 years younger. She’s also been in this defensive police tactics class for three weeks and knows a thing or two about boxing. When she starts punching, I try deflect her blows. She hits my jaw sending my head reeling. Then she delivers two quick, hard punches to my right ribs that jolt the breath out of me. Before I can recover, Steve yells, “Switch to the right” and a male cadet moves onto my mat.
I move around, but it’s futile to avoid the cadet’s punches. He must think I’m an idiot. It’s obvious from his punches that he thinks I’m the enemy.
“Switch,” yells Steve.
I’m exhausted. I don’t want to get hit anymore. “Hey, take it easy will you?” I say to the young man. “I’m new at this.”
He takes pity on me and I escape opponent number three without much damage.
In the locker room, I peel off my sweaty clothes and join the other female cadets in the showers. We have only a few minutes to shower, dress in full uniform, and sprint across campus.
One young women sports huge bruises around her waist where her duty belt sits. Another, still in uniform, rests her arm in a sling. When I ask what happened, she says with a shrug, “The instructor in this class dislocated my shoulder. It happens.”
After an uninspired cafeteria lunch, it’s time for driving instruction. Cadets drive standard-issue police cars in harrowing situations from high speed chases to multi-car accident scenes and Corporal Ryan teaches them how. Depot offers three challenging courses posing different obstacles. Our course is a twisty snake of pavement designed for high-speed maneuvering with fast stops, hair-pin turns, road hazards, and sudden lane changes.
Corporal Ryan straps in. I’m in the passenger seat; Mandy behind. “We’ll take this slow at first to introduce the course,” he says, maneuvering slalom-style around orange cones. He takes a hard right, a left, and hits the gas at the straightaway, easily skirting lane change cones. “We use push-pull steering,” he explains. “The hands are at nine o’clock and three o’clock and we’ve always got one hand on the steering wheel to control the vehicle.”
It reminds me of how my grandmother used to steer, carefully clutching the wheel. But when Corporal Ryan careens around a sharp corner, easily missing the cones, and punches the gas pedal, it isn’t Grandma driving.
“It’s all about sequencing,” Ryan says, easing into a corner. “We teach cadets how to simultaneously do a lot of things like driving and talking on the radio.”
On our second pass, Ryan sets his stopwatch and pulls out, much faster this time. Cadets must complete this course in four minutes or less without knocking over any cones. As the corporal hits the gas, I’m pushed back into my seat and, when we scream through S-curves, the seatbelt cuts into my shoulder. We hit 80 mph down the straightaway and Mandy is giggling, a sure sign of nerves.
The ride is exciting, if a bit harrowing. Though he’s maneuvering the car like a race car driver, Corporal Ryan is perfectly calm and in complete control. At each corner or fast stop, he coolly calculates speed, approach, angles.
We glide back to the start zone. Only 3 minutes 26 seconds have elapsed.
It’s my turn. I’ve always been a good driver and feel confident. In the first curves, I knock over an orange cone. In the lane-change speedway, I push the speed to 70, and easily negotiate the cones.
Push-pull steering feels strange. I want to use hand-over-hand steering, but resist. At a series of high-sided curves, Ryan instructs, “Start down low and head for the top of the curve.”
The car easily hugs the corner and screams into the next without fishtailing. But, at one point, I drive off the route, entirely missing an L-box turn. At another, I squash another cone.
I’m definitely not ready for police driving.
We leave the driving course, exhilarated and a bit humbled. Next comes the firing range, a low ceiling cinder block area with individual shooting stations and moveable paper targets sporting human silhouettes. We’re shooting live ammunition so we’re wearing Kevlar vests, ear protection, and safety glasses and baseball caps that help prevent ejected shells from hitting us in the face.
The instructors demonstrate how to hold the pistol, a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic, and aim down the barrel. I’ve never shot a pistol before and, when I squeeze the trigger, the gun kicks back with surprising force. My first shot hits the target high in the neck area of the silhouette. I close one eye and focus on the tiny sight at the end of the barrel. I take a deep breath, lower my center, and squeeze the trigger. This time, my aim is dead-on, hitting the target in the chest area. Blam, blam, blam…the shots ring out and holes appear in dead center. Even the instructor is impressed.
We move to a computer-controlled firing range that enables cadets and teachers to analyze each shot. The guns are real, but the ammo is simulated. I step to the line, hold my pistol with both hands, crouch in the firing position, and squeeze. Blam, blam, blam…my shots land in the middle of the target. The instructors ask us to rapid fire react to a shooting situation. I pull the trigger and my semi-automatic fires again and again, my shots hitting the target in the kill zone, or, as they call it, the “critical hit area.”
Mandy isn’t having as much luck. I hear her giggling a few feet away. “Can you shoot with your eyes closed?” she asks.
Shooting isn’t her forte.
This shooting range can also simulate field situations. It enables the RCMP to train cadets in close-to-real scenarios and, afterward, analyze their responses and decision-making. It’s so effective that police agencies from all over the world routinely come to study the system.
Mini-Mounties on Parade
We have just enough time to get to the parade grounds for the Sergeant Major’s Parade. Every afternoon, select troops march with the band in front of drill instructors and the Sergeant Major, the officer in charge of dress and deportment, and protocol and ceremonies. It’s an honor and a trial to participate and the spectacle is so impressive the public comes to watch.
Everyone is dressed in boots, something they’ve earned. Mandy and I are in running shoes. We hastily join a group of cadets. We haven’t practiced many of the complicated marching moves. A male cadet says reassuringly, “Don’t worry. Just follow me.”
We march smartly in rows of three toward the parade ground. It’s hard to hear the Right Marker and when our troop suddenly swings right, Mandy and I hustle to catch up.
Several troops, the marching band, and a number of officers are already assembled in front of flags and the memorial to fallen RCMP officers. Around the perimeter, visitors, some in lawn chairs, gather.
Because the RCMP is a para-military organization, crisp marching and elaborate uniforms are the norm. The Sergeant Major and the drill instructors, including D.I. Penny from this morning, are in full uniform and ready for inspection.
The cadet troops are grouped by tenure. Troops here the longest sport flat-brimmed Dudley Do-Right hats, blue slacks with gold stripping, and beautiful knee-high riding boots. Other troops, like our’s, wear combat-style black boots, plain blue pants, and police-style caps. The caps, which resemble cabbie hats, are worn low on the head. The hat’s interior headband is indented so that the hat doesn’t blow off, but it’s uncomfortable. My forehead feels sore from the pressure. Cadets say you get used to it in a few weeks, but I have my doubts.
“Atten-shu…eyes right….at ease….rest…” Each troop goes through the paces. The troops march through an intricate series of movements, up, down, around, swing right, then left. Mandy and I do our best to follow our cadet-leader. Mandy is often off step, her arm and leg moving opposite the cadet next to us. I’m in step, but barely.
We line up and the drill instructors inspect the troops, walking up and down, occasionally stopping to dress down a cadet. When a male D.I. reaches Mandy and I, he looks down.
“Runners on the parade ground?” he asks incredulously. “That’s a first.”
He starts to walk away. Mandy and I stare straight ahead.
He stops and looks back at us and sneers. “Who invited the mini-Mounties?”
I’m feel humiliated. I want to smack this guy, but I keep looking forward.
Now it’s time for the Sergeant Major. She’s taller than Drill Instructor Penny and about my age. She examines the troops; occasionally saying something to a cadet.
As she approaches, my heart beats hard. She stops in front of me, looks me in the eyes, and smiles, “How are you enjoying your cadet experience?”
There’s a unexpected kindness and warmth in her voice.
“Very well, mam. Thank you.” I croak.
I’m relieved. I feel like hugging her.
So, do I have the right stuff to join the RCMP? There were moments when I actually thought so.
However, the stress and hardship I experienced for 24 hours at Depot go on for cadets for six long months. They leave loved ones, earn only a tiny stipend, and they’re drilled, punched, pushed, and chastened 12+ hours a day for 24 months. They endure being tased with electric current and sprayed in the face with mace, a hot pepper spray that stings the eyes and lungs and lasts for hours. Then they go onto difficult, dangerous, and often thankless duty.
It the RCMP for me? Not really.
And I wish, really wish I could have one of those Dudley Do-Right hats.
— by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Lisa Mitchell, Regina Regional Opportunities Commission