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Today’s Sgt. Preston of the Yukon Just Might Be a Woman or an Indian

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Canadian Mountie of Hollywood cliche not only always got his man, but saved an imperiled young woman and perhaps befriended some trusty Indians along the way.

These days, young women and natives are apt to be Mounties themselves, nabbing the villain with a martial-arts chokehold or calming a brawl with diplomacy learned in dispute-resolution class.

The trademark Stetson hats and red jackets still surface for ceremonial events. But the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is thoroughly transforming itself with new training techniques and an aggressive campaign to recruit women and minorities.

Nowhere are the changes more evident than at the Mounties’ national training academy on the western fringe of this prairie city. The cadet corps is older, better educated, more diverse than ever before.

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Some long-serving Mounties have been skeptical of the changes, and the right-wing Reform Party contends that affirmative action recruitment is weakening the force.

But academy staff insists that the quality of today’s cadets is higher than ever.

“Our standards haven’t changed,” said Inspector Harper Boucher, who oversees cadet training. “If you’re weak, if you don’t come up to the standards, you’re out.”

The cadets still learn the tough stuff--how to subdue an attacker, fire a 12-gauge shotgun, conduct high-speed pursuits on slippery roads. But they also take awareness classes aimed at enhancing understanding of minority groups and learn about community-based social programs.

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Women weren’t admitted to the force until 1974. Now, 1,169 of the 15,081 Mounties are women. There are 441 aboriginal Indians on the force, and 381 officers from other racial minorities, primarily blacks and Asians.

The ethnic diversification program began in the mid-1980s and accelerated over the last few years as the Mounties reassessed their methods of policing aboriginal and minority communities. They began recruiting cadets who knew the culture and language, who wouldn’t be seen as outsiders.

“It’s amazing the diversity you see now,” said Supt. Les Chipperfield, the academy’s deputy commander. He recalled one troop of 24 cadets who collectively spoke 20 different languages.

Cpl. Lawrence Aimoe, 35, who is of Cree and Ojibway descent, is an instructor at the academy. There were no aborigines on the staff when he studied there as one of a few native recruits.

Aimoe first applied to join the Mounties in 1979, but wasn’t accepted until 1985--about the time the high command decided to seek a new approach in combating the high crime and incarceration rates among Canada’s 1 million natives.

“The force realized it wasn’t serving native communities the way it should,” Aimoe said. “It’s been a slow, painful process.”

The verdict on the Mounties’ progress is mixed.

“On most reserves, things are fine. There are Mounties out there coaching the kids in bantam hockey leagues,” said Bruce Spence, a spokesman for the alliance of Manitoba Indian chiefs. “But there are some places that are really bad. We know about a white constable who goes around picking fights with the kids.”

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Kah-Tineta Horn, a Mohawk woman who is president of the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples, believes that the Mounties’ diversification effort is insincere.

She says the force still is slow to promote natives to supervisory positions and is more ready to use firearms during confrontations with natives than it would be if whites were involved.

Some native communities are happy to have Mounties as their police force; others have asked the RCMP to train native officers to take over law enforcement on a reserve.

The addition of more native officers has had a concrete impact in some communities. Aimoe told of his stint at Hobbema, a Cree reserve in Alberta, where he and his partners were able to sharply reduce the murder and suicide rates and get local people more involved in law enforcement.

“The community made up its mind to change,” Aimoe said. “There was a terrific turnaround.”

Aimoe said aboriginal Mounties are well received on most reserves, but he advises native cadets to stay away from their home communities.

“We’ve lost a few via suicide that way,” he said. “Chances are that within a week they’re arresting a relative. It’s tough going back and policing your own family.”

The pressure on such Mounties can be intense. Aimoe said they are likely to be taunted with the epithet “apple"--red on the outside, white on the inside.

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Women now make up 11% of the force and have begun reaching command-level positions. One detachment in British Columbia consists of 15 women and 13 men.

At the academy, women face the same physical requirements as men, whether on the shooting range, in self-defense class or passing a mandatory stamina test.

“The girls are timid when they start and just as aggressive as the guys when they’ve finished,” said Cpl. Bruce Onofreychuk, who oversees instruction at the shooting range.

Lesley Ahara, 25, majored in criminology at the University of Toronto, then startled her friends by deciding to become a Mountie.

“They have no idea what it’s like,” she said during lunch at the academy cafeteria. “They asked if I was going to ride horses or go to the Yukon.”

A few cadets do head for the Yukon. But despite the force’s name, no one learns riding at the academy, and most Mounties never mount a horse.

Ahara, a top-level synchronized swimmer, said she has found the academy program to be physically taxing, especially the self-defense drills and the shooting.

“It’s a man’s world here,” she said. “It’s 10 times harder for a woman.”

But she said there is little sexism at the academy, and she is determined to complete the training without seeking concessions.

“I’m a real emotional, sappy kind of wimp,” she said. “I’m getting a lot tougher. I want to be 100% prepared.”

In some ways, Ahara is typical of the new breed of cadet. The average age is about 26, and about two-thirds have university degrees. Many have given up full-time jobs in other professions--recent cadets have included lawyers, pharmacists and a mortician.

There are about 400 cadets at the academy at any one time, entering in troops of 24 at staggered intervals to complete a six-month program. Their starting pay on graduation is $22,510 and the salary rises to $28,225 after six more months of field training.

At the academy, the new teaching methods coexist with time-honored traditions. Drill instructors bellow commands for military-style parading, and dormitories resemble army barracks, each cot and bureau precision-neat.

Cadets worship in a chapel built in 1873, the year of the Mounties’ birth, and march to classes down streets named for officers killed in the line of duty.

Today’s Mounties undertake a remarkably diverse array of tasks--rural policing and highway patrolling in all but two provinces, FBI-style intelligence work, fraud and narcotics investigations, protection of Canadian and visiting dignitaries. Most of the time, they wear standard blue police outfits.

Chipperfield said teaching and training methods were radically changed in 1994. Traditional lectures were virtually eliminated and cadets were taught as adults, learning by doing, concentrating on problem-solving skills.

The Mounties work for provincial governments and native tribes only if they are considered the most cost-effective way to provide law enforcement.

Ontario and Quebec have their own provincial forces to provide rural policing.

The emphasis is on “community policing"--working with civic leaders to meet specific local law-enforcement needs.

“We take on so many little tasks--veterinarian, dogcatcher, you name it,” Boucher said.

Mounties in the field do make occasional slip-ups. Last fall, there was widespread derision when an intruder slipped past Mountie security at Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s residence and reached the bedroom door before being caught.

But the force remains Canada’s most enduring and respected national symbol.

“We’re No. 1 in the world,” Chipperfield said. “Our cadets look a lot different than they used to. But that reflects our society. We’re never going to stop growing and changing.”


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