They were men, strong and tough, able to endure the harshest of conditions, but men, no women (at least on paper).
For over 100 years, remote parts of Canada had been patrolled and even explored to some extent by members of the North-West Mounted Police, which later became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after a merger with the Dominion Police in 1920.
This national police force maintained order and asserted sovereignty, while also acting as the contracted provincial police in several provinces. For decades they have been a recognizable symbol of Canada appearing at major functions in their dress uniform of Stetson campaign hats, red serge dress jackets, riding boots and Sam Browne belts.
There had been women of course, but these were often wives or others, who often worked to maintain the remote posts, and deal with paperwork and were unpaid, and unrecognized
RCMP gender barrier removed
But by the 1960’s rumblings of women’s equality issues were starting to grow.
In 1967, the government set up the Royal Commission on the Status of Women to address issues of gender inequality in many spheres of Canadian Society.
One of the 1970 recommendations was that the old boys club of the RCMP, one of the last police forces which had no female officers, begin to accept women. Four years and several ‘studies’ later, the RCMP finally acted.
In 1974, recruitment adverts for female candidates appeared in newspapers across the country.
Some 292 women applied, and on this date, September 16, 1974, the first cohort of 32 were sworn in.
The story made national headlines.
The timing for the signing of women in various centres across Canada was coordinated, so that no one woman would bear the pressure of being “the first”.
A week later the women began their months long training at the RCMP training ‘depot’ in Regina Saskatchewan.
The Mounties weren’t really prepared for having women in the force. There were questions over training requirements and standards that had to be met for such things as strength and endurance. And of course questions about clothing and uniforms. Initially they were wearing smaller size men’s boots for example which weren’t quite suited to narrower feet.
As the Mounties had no experience training women, they hired a female military officer, Maj. Doris Toole, as a consultant, who advised on training, uniform and kit.
One of that first cadre of female recruits later rose to the position of top position of Commissioner (interim) from 2006 to 2007.
Other changes have been slow. Initially women were given purses in which to carry the pistol, ammunition and handcuffs.
It took years before the pillbox hat, clingy blouse, and pumps (shoes) gave way to more practicle clothing. And it was only in 1990, that the ‘female’ uniform was dropped and a single standard design for both men and women was adopted.
It took even longer until 1992 before they could wear the dress red serge jackets, Strathcona riding boots, breeches, and Stetson campaign hats.
There have been other advances. In the 1990’s the Mounties allowed Sikh recruits to wear their turbans, and last month a decision to allow Muslim women recruits to wear hijabs if they choose.
However, even this many decades later, there are still gender issues in the force as it continues to shed its old attitudes and work towards more equitable treatment. The Mounties are facing lawsuits from hundreds of female recruits and constables claiming sexual abuse or harassment or discrimination.