This ain’t no rodeo folks. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Musical Ride has been performing for Canadians since 1876. 32 “Mounties” as RCMP officers are known, ride around on horseback in various carefully choreographed formations while instrumental music plays. The Musical Ride’s permanent home is at the RCMP Rockcliffe barracks in Ottawa. It tours around Canada and the world each year as a symbol of the historic police force and its role in Canada’s past and present. Their most recent international trip was to Britain to perform for Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday.
During the past week, it staged its annual series of free Sunset Ceremonies at Rockcliffe in appreciation of the local community. This year, there was a special emphasis on appreciating the other emergency response organizations that serve eastern Ontario and western Quebec. Displays were set up from other police forces, fire departments, and paramedic services.
The show I attended got started with a performance by the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces. Sailors, soldiers, and aviators played everything from the score from Looney Tunes to Ordinary Day by Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea. Then came the Mounties themselves demonstrating shooting at balloons on horseback or picking up tent pegs while galloping along. Bagpipers from the RCMP and Ottawa Police pipe bands played while the RCMP Highland Dancers performed. The Ottawa Police Canine Unit demonstrated how a police dog takes down a suspect on the run. He was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater so he made the dog especially angry.
After what felt a lot like a military and police variety show, the Musical Ride rode into the show ring. The crowd was spellbound by the impressive sight of the officers clad in their traditional “Red Serge” tunics that include the familiar Stetson hat, Sam Browne belt, and breeches. They rode around in various circular and line formations to the tune of recorded military marches, patriotic songs, and instrumentals of Canadian classics. On the evening I was there, there seemed to be a lot of adaptations of late folk singer Stan Rogers. The formations of the Musical Ride include the “turnstile” in which a large X is formed and rotates. There’s a shamrock and four circles too. The big hit with the crowd is the “dome.” It’s where the riders and horses form a circle and raise their spears and point them all into the center. Older Canadians love this because from 1975 to 1989, the Musical Ride in dome formation was depicted on the back of the $50 note. It honestly was a colorful sight to have on money, and it makes folks nostalgic for when $50 went a lot further.
There were thousands of people at the Sunset Ceremony I attended. They were of all ages too. Children rolled on the grassy hills behind the seating area while senior citizens watched from lawn chairs Among the prominent guests were RCMP Deputy Commissioner Mike Cabana and Tony Negus, the Australian High Commissioner (ambassador) to Canada.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is Canada’s federal police force. It was originally established in 1873 as the North West Mounted Police to bring law and order to the west. It eventually became the main provincial police force in seven provinces. Quebec and Ontario have provincial police forces but the Mounties there focus on things like organized crime and contraband. In Newfoundland, the RCMP shares jurisdiction with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.
The RCMP is actually a quasi-military organization and is classified as light cavalry. The Red Serge uniforms and horses are no longer used for ordinary police work. It’s pretty hard to chase a speeding car on horseback wearing a bulky wool tunic so today’s Mounties wear a more ordinary police uniform and drive patrol cars. The RCMP has become symbol of Canadian popular culture too. Mounties have appeared in both serious and silly roles in Hollywood films, Monty Python sketches, and television shows. At the Sunset Ceremony, a souvenir tent sold everything from teacups to towels with a Mountie on them. In a country noted for remarkably understating its patriotism and symbolism, the RCMP and its Musical Ride stand out as an exception.