Embarrassing Setbacks : Mounties: Truly Macho or a Myth?

Times Staff Writer

To Charles McVey, this tiny village in the Yukon Territory was a fugitive's delight. A hundred miles from the nearest town of any size, it was isolated and private, a place to indulge his passion for fishing without fear that anyone would realize that he was one of the U.S. government's most-wanted criminals.

So McVey, who was being sought for illegally selling billions of dollars worth of Western-made high technology to the Soviet Bloc, was not worried last August when a blue-uniformed police officer sat down next to him in Teslin's only restaurant. He had been coming here for 29 years, and no one had paid him any mind.

But Cpl. Daniel Fudge was not just any police officer. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the force that always gets its man, and there was something familiar about the diner on the next stool, something that struck Fudge as odd.

Old-Fashioned Police Work

That feeling led Fudge to do some checking, and after some old-fashioned police work, Fudge arrested McVey. No computers, no electronic tracking devices, no sting operations. Just one cop tracking a fugitive.

It was a Mountie operation that would have made the Royal Canadian Mounted Police publicists proud. Like Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Fudge had lived up to the RCMP's official French motto-- "Maintiens le Droit " ("Uphold the Right")--and its unofficial code: The Mounties always get their man.

Sadly, Fudge's derring-do is increasingly rare these days, because the Mounties do not always get their man. In fact, say its critics, this famous police force, with its public image of tall, lean, scarlet-coated men on horseback or dog sled, stalking desperadoes through the wilderness, could probably do with a little less Sgt. Preston and a lot more computers and bureaucratic organization.

Series of Setbacks

The Mounties are suffering as never before. They have failed to solve several major crimes, including the June, 1985, terrorist bombing of an Air-India jet bound from Montreal to Bombay that killed 329 people; an attack on the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa, and a number of white-collar offenses involving government officials.

The force is at odds with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which was created in 1984 after a government investigation found that the RCMP had abused its power, a situation that, according to some politicians and attorneys, still has not been dealt with adequately.

Several RCMP members and former members say privately that morale is low because of limited advancement opportunities, because of the force's remote leadership and because of a recruiting policy that ignores the best-qualified in order to fulfill quotas aimed at increasing the number of women and French-speakers.

The force even seems to have trouble learning how to shoot straight--literally. Four Mounties have shot themselves accidentally this year after being equipped with a new weapon.

As a result of all this, the Mounties have been subjected to unprecedented criticism and investigation. Government commissions have disclosed a variety of errors, omissions and even illegal actions over the past decade.

Yet interviews with Mounties, with lawyers and government officials, make it clear that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is still the most respected public institution in Canada. As RCMP Commissioner Norman Inkster told a reporter, "We continue to enjoy public support, so we must be doing something right."

Perhaps, but not according to Edward Greenspan, one of Canada's best-known criminal defense attorneys.

'A Great Myth'

"The Mounties are a great myth," Greenspan said. "They are a Hollywood myth. They dress well and have created a romantic image, but they are no better than any another large police force, and in many ways they are worse, even dangerous."

Although he comes to a different conclusion, even Inkster gives the myth of the near-perfect Mountie credit for much of the public acclaim. At his headquarters at the edge of Ottawa, the 49-year-old commissioner told of the American Indian Chief Sitting Bull and several hundred of his followers crossing into Canada after the Battle of Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull was confronted by two Mounties who told him he could stay if he behaved peacefully and obeyed the law.

"Sitting Bull looked at the two Mounties and asked where were the troops to back up the statement," Inkster said. "The Mountie pointed to a nearby hill and said there were two other policemen in reserve. That was all he needed."

When asked if the story was true, Inkster laughed as if to indicate it really didn't matter. And in many ways it probably doesn't.

Robert Kaplan, a Liberal Party member of Parliament who was the RCMP's political master as solicitor general under former Prime Ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau and John Turner, said: "They (the Mounties) are not just a police force. They are a very important national institution, even an incomparable one. Where else (but Canada) do kids buy police dolls?"

The Mounties began as a quasi-military frontier police force in the early 1870s. The exact date is in dispute, but the centennial was celebrated in 1973. Known for some years as the North West Mounted Police, the force passed into legend, literature and history as a handful of brave men who almost single-handedly tamed Canada's frontier, opening the vast territory to settlement and development without the violence and Indian wars of the American experience.

"As immigrants moved west," Inkster said, "the NWMP moved with them. (This) allowed us to gain and retain public respect. We have grown up with Canada. . . . The RCMP is always seen as a last bastion (of law and order)."

Cpl. Fudge echoed this view. He said in an interview in Whitehorse, the territorial capital: "People say Canada was dominated once by the British and now by the Americans. The Mounties are one of the few things people know is pure Canadian.

"Canadians like to think of themselves as frontier people, and Mounties are associated with the romance of the frontier. People don't think of the Mounties stopping speeders and doing ordinary police work."

Actually, much of the RCMP's work is just that, ordinary police work. About half of the force's 16,000 uniformed personnel serve as the police for eight of Canada's 10 provinces, acting more like highway patrolmen than the members of a super investigative unit, doing everything from ticketing speeders to settling domestic disputes and investigating auto collisions.

That is the reality. The myth is Sgt. Preston of television fame urging his dog King through the snowdrifts of the Yukon, or the late actor Nelson Eddy--a Canadian national--standing tall in his red coat and Smokey-the-Bear hat and singing "When I'm Calling You" across the Canadian wilderness to the late Jeanette MacDonald.

It's still the myth, a myth carried on by a high-powered public relations campaign that sends a unit of RCMP troopers around the country and to other lands to put on what are called "musical rides," which involve precision equestrian maneuvers by Mounties wearing their red coats and distinctive hats.

It is a sight known to nearly every tourist to Ottawa or Niagara Falls, but not to most Canadians. That is because ordinary Canadians go through life seeing Mounties not in red uniforms or on horseback but wearing unremarkable blue or brown uniforms and riding in blue-and-white four-door cruisers, usually Fords.

"I hardly ever wear red serge," Fudge said of the famous coat. "Once when I was in Ottawa and saw a Mountie on a horse and in red serge, I grabbed a couple of snapshots myself."

Actually, Fudge, a 35-year-old native of Newfoundland, has been wearing his dress uniform a lot lately, in what is a nice example of the RCMP sense of publicity. After his coup in apprehending McVey, Fudge was sent to Washington to be feted by American officials. There were dinners, tours of the White House and Pentagon and lots of photo opportunities, all with Fudge in his red coat.

As it turned out, Fudge's determined effort to bring McVey to bay displayed some of the problems as well as the good work done by Mounties.

After Fudge arrested the fugitive, he and his superiors failed to take him to a judge in the proper jurisdiction and McVey was ordered released. Another Mountie, who received far less publicity, rearrested McVey near Vancouver after tracking him down on his own time.

According to Greenspan and other lawyers, as well as non-RCMP police officers, the Mounties are often sloppy in following procedure. At a recent Toronto convention of international police organizations, a Toronto officer said: "I resent the RCMP reputation. We have a better arrest and conviction rate, and we lose fewer (cases) in court (through violations of laws and rules)."

But as resentful as this officer was, he would not permit a reporter to quote him by name, an indication of RCMP influence, which shapes the thinking of Canada's most important politicians.

"The commissioner of the RCMP is often more respected than the solicitor general," said Kaplan, the former solicitor general. "That is not a good thing. . . . A police force, even a benevolent police force, can't be allowed to do what it wants."

Kaplan then told of a time when as solicitor general he told an RCMP official of the need to do some budget cutting.

'Would Have Been My Head'

"He agreed," Kaplan said, "but suggested the only thing that could be cut was the musical ride. That would have been my head."

Kaplan was smiling, but the point was clear.

A series of Royal Commission investigations, starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s, uncovered a series of Mountie abuses, many totally illegal, including the mishandling of national security cases, violations of wiretap laws, breaking and entering, theft and destruction of private property.

Yet it took 15 years to get Parliament to approve a separate intelligence service, which handles intelligence-gathering and some other functions that are handled in the United States by the CIA and the FBI. And no federal government, regardless of party, has been willing to put the Mounties under an independent civilian review system.

"There is too much deference" to the RCMP, Kaplan said. He was being partisan in this criticism, aiming at the incumbent Conservative government, but he acknowledged that as solicitor general he failed in his first attempt to take intelligence operations away from the Mounties because "they opposed it and they got the decision."

The commissions' investigations "were an eye-opener," attorney Greenspan said, adding, "They showed there was nothing unusually fair or decent about the force, that it was not an elite."

But it made no real difference with the public or in Ottawa, he said.

"Because Canadians put them on a pedestal, they (the Mounties) are allowed to run amok," he went on. "Politicians are still turning a blind eye. The RCMP is a worshiped institution, and I don't think anyone in Canada wants to knock that institution."

Commissioner Inkster, who was promoted to that post just this fall, says that past violations were unauthorized, and he denies that the force now abuses either its power or the law. He insists that the public is fully behind the Mounties.

That may be true. Despite the criticism, the abuses and political manipulation, many Canadians still regard the RCMP as something special. In the Yukon and Northwest Territories and other remote areas of Canada, the Mountie is more than just the local law and order. He--or, increasingly, she--is the sole representative of the government. And more often than not, the RCMP constable is social worker, legal adviser, medic and recreation director.

"We can't live on the side of the community," Inkster said. "We have to live in it."

Another factor that works to the Mounties' advantage is that Canadians, perhaps unlike Americans, trust authority.

"Order is something Canadians want and what the Mounties stand for," Kaplan said. "The Mounties are almost a symbol of the Canadian desire for authority."

Greenspan and other civil rights advocates say Canadians may be too trusting for their own good.

"In the past," Greenspan said, "the public and politicians have been mesmerized by the RCMP, which means there has been no effective check and balance."

Last month, when the Mounties were accused of ignoring warnings of a terrorist plot that led to the bombing of the Air-India plane and of engaging in questionable tactics, the government refused to investigate.

Instead, Solicitor General James F. Kelleher told the House of Commons he had called Inkster and had been assured that nothing illegal or improper had been done. That, evidently, is enough for a police force that is virtually the symbol of the nation.

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