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They are the world's souvenir police force. They are possibly Canada's -- anglophone Canada's; the French have never been wild about them -- most enduring icon.

A year ago, London's Daily Telegraph said: "In the popular idea of the Mounties -- foursquare, moral, conciliatory -- many Canadians fancy that they see a reflection of their own identity." The Times of London said (who knows what prompted this attention) that Canadians "are essentially Mounties at heart, and share with their celebrated law enforcers the old-fashioned virtues of honesty, modesty and endeavour."

So goes Mountie mythology. The RCMP has shown a genius for manufacturing its own history and image, commercially marketed at one time by Disney and abetted by novelists, children's writers, so-called historians, journalists and U.S. and British films that have imbued members of the force with noble masculine virtues of Grail-questing knights.

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The real RCMP was created by the national government in 1920 -- not 1873, the birth date the force celebrates -- largely for the purpose of spying on labour and political activists labelled subversive.

Through the 1920s and the Depression, it pursued Communists, socialists, unionists and leaders of the unemployed. Through the Cold War, it maintained surveillance on 800,000 Canadians. It used dirty tricks to undermine the Quebec separatist movement. It spied on black and aboriginal organizations. The Toronto Star once called it the "Canadian Cheka," a reference to the Soviet secret police. Eventually, it was told it could no longer do security work.

What happened in 1873 was the creation of the North-West Mounted Police to control the vast North-West Territories that Canada had acquired from the Hudson's Bay Co. The government anticipated trouble with the aboriginal inhabitants once settlers began moving in.

Over the next decade, the NWMP did bring order to the West (needed more for yahoo settlers than the largely orderly aboriginals) and contributed to the Northwest Rebellion's not becoming a war. Although the great story of a single Mountie representing the Queen's justice turning up to take delivery of a band of irritated Indians from a U.S. cavalry troop is a dime-novelist's invention. The NWMP's second golden period was its presence in the 1896 Klondike gold rush.

Those frontier sagas made the Mounties heroes in anglophone Canada and helped dissuade the government from doing what it wanted to do -- disband the RNWMP (the R for Royal was added after the Boer War) because, by 1919, it had all but run out of things to do: no more wartime security duties, and virtually no local policing. Instead, Ottawa merged it with the Dominion Police, a small federal protective and intelligence-gathering force formed in 1868 after MP Thomas D'Arcy McGee was assassinated, probably by Irish Fenian terrorists. The new body was called the RCMP and its mandate was to combat political subversion.

Socialist MP J. S. Woodsworth recognized the danger of the popular NWMP's being an instrument in the hands of those who supported the political status quo. In 1923, he unsuccessfully urged Parliament to undo the merger and send the NWMP back west.

Last week, a commission of inquiry said the RCMP violated the constitutional rights of political demonstrators at a 1997 international conference in Vancouver.

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