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Riding to the Rescue: The Transformation of the RCMP in Alberta and Saskatchewan, 1914–1939

by Steve Hewitt

The idea of a Machiavellian police force, desperate to maintain its survival by searching out state enemies often exaggerated or even imagined, does not square with most images of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Yet Steve Hewitt shows how this significant Canadian institution, once on the brink of elimination for reasons of irrelevance and duplication, smelled its potential doom and transformed itself into a powerful police force whose targets, underhanded tactics, and political bias continue to reverberate through recent headlines about pepper spray and “extraordinary renditions” to torture.

Hewitt, a university professor whose excellent 2002 title Spying 101: The RCMP’s Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, opened the door on some of the Mounties’ more peculiar paranoiac escapades, continues his ongoing study into the seamier side of the fabled horsemen by exploring the organization’s early modern roots.

Hewitt provides a fascinating glimpse into the often glossed-over racism of the early days of the Dominion, focusing on the RCMP’s role in registering and monitoring “aliens” on the Prairies, harassing members of the Chinese-Canadian community under the auspices of the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, and keeping tabs on the likes of the all-female Ukrainian Mandolin Orchestra.

He also points out that, but for the historic names, one could substitute contemporary figures and themes like Maher Arar and racial profiling, and conclude that the imperatives that seemed to drive the RCMP in the 1920s remain very much the same.

Hewitt is a thorough and fair historian, and certainly no Mountie-basher; indeed, he finds space to provide sympathetic portraits of Mounties who questioned the tunnel vision of their superiors. He also shows how the early days of working for the national police force were fraught with poor pay, wretched living conditions, and a monastery-like control over their social activities, from getting married to growing a moustache.

While Riding to the Rescue is an overall good read, Hewitt has unfortunately failed to strip from the first couple of chapters the remnants of the PhD thesis on which the book was based. The ivory tower language there is unnecessary, and likely to lose potential readers who would benefit from the rest of the story.