NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

History Comes To Life At New RCMP Heritage Centre

If your image of a museum visit is shuffling between displays carefully preserved behind glass, you’re in for a surprise at the new Royal Canadian Mounted Police Heritage Centre in Regina.

It begins with the building itself, designed by Arthur Erickson, the architect whose work includes the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and much of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. The Tyndall stone, concrete and glass structure hugs the ground, but the grand sweep of the roof guides your eye to the spectacular blue of the Prairie sky.

Inside you’re greeted by a mural of a lone, mounted sentinel at the edge of the vast Prairie grasslands, overlooking the serene beauty of the Cypress Hills on the province’s southwest border. You feel you could walk into that landscape, back into history, back to the birth of our national police force in arguably the first display of Canada’s national values of peace, order and good government.

But the biggest surprise is how the space and exhibits conspire to evoke an emotional response, for although the museum exists to tell the story of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, that story is also in large part the story of the building of our nation.

“The force was integral to opening up of the land,” says Vic Huard, president of the RCMP Heritage Centre. “Erickson’s vision was to create a building that was itself linked to the land.” Museum staff, aided by staff from the RCMP Historical Collections Unit, have linked it to time through clever marriage of historical artifacts, reproductions and hands-on displays.

The 6,500-square-metre building sits on 51⁄2 hectares of land right on the doorstep of Depot Division, the RCMP Academy. Although not all the space is in use yet, the building opened May 23, 2007. It houses 1,600 square metres of exhibit space, a multimedia theatre and 260 square metres of kid- and technology-friendly space for community programming. It has cost nearly $30 million so far and the price tag is expected to grow to $40 million when the second phase is finished. Phase two will add a stockade wall at the main entrance, space for outdoor programming, and fill up the remaining 743 square metres of exhibit space with three permanent galleries devoted to members’ real-life experiences, the Musical Ride and the iconic Mountie image.

Visitors are treated to a high-tech introduction in the 124-seat theatre. A 27-minute multimedia show, Tour of Duty, delivers an overview of the RCMP’s thrilling history, current community service and crime busting in a stirring fashion.

Only a fraction of the force’s nearly 40,000 artifacts, valued at more than $25 million, are on display now. Visitors can feel free to snap pictures since many reproductions are used instead of fragile original artifacts, says Huard, and glass cases have been specially treated to limit light damage.

Dominating the exhibit space is March of the Mounties, a 30-metre cavalcade of life-size artifacts chronicling history of the force, from a cannon used in the 1874 March West to equipment from the last dog-sled patrol in 1969, to mannequins portraying various roles members of the force play at home and abroad today.

“My favourite object is the original ATV (all-terrain vehicle) used up North,” says Shannon Cunningham, conservator and collections manager of the RCMP Historical Collections Unit, who works alongside Heritage Centre staff. Her connection is personal: “It’s the one my dad used to use to drive me to school in the winter when you couldn’t get through on the roads.” The Bombardier “smells like a lawnmower and drives like a tin can,” she remembers.

Her father served two years of his 32-year RCMP career in Norway House, Man., about 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg. In those days “it was a fly-in community,” she says; supplies arrived by barge in summer. Posting to isolated communities is a hallmark of RCMP service, part of the reputation for adventure, she says, that attracts recruits even today.

Already plagued by whisky-trade violence, tested by the Northwest Rebellion and worried by refugees fleeing north from the Indian wars in the United States, Sir John A. Macdonald’s government was appalled by the massacre of several dozen Assiniboia Indians in the Cypress Hills. The Northwest Mounted Police was formed in 1873 to protect the Indians, safeguard settlers, vanquish the whisky trade and equitably dispense justice. The NWMP became the Royal NWMP in 1904 and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920.

The story of the force’s early history is told from three different points of view, that of the Métis, the Cree and the NWMP. “History is not one-sided,” says Cunningham. The Louis Riel exhibit serves as an example. Some Canadians regard Riel as the father of Manitoba and a revered leader of the Métis people, others view him as a traitor justly hanged. The display is sensitive to these different points of view. The rope from the hanging, which caused controversy at the former RCMP Centennial Museum, is no longer on display.

The artifacts in the display about first encounters with First Nations were blessed by native elders. “In these cultures they believe once you’ve worn something your spirit stays with it,” explains Huard. So although the artifacts aren’t sacred in a religious sense, their personal spiritual significance is respected.

Exhibits show how from the beginning, members of the force have been made of stern stuff. By the time NWMP Commissioner George French had mustered his men and matériel, “he had three months to train them and march halfway across the country, with no maps, not knowing where to find fresh water, not knowing if people would attack them, and expecting war with the whisky traders,” says Cunningham. “Their job was to maintain the peace, establish and maintain law and order in the west…and 300 guys did it. They were a different breed.”

By the time the West had been tamed, a new violent frontier was growing in the North, and the force was needed there to establish Canada’s claim to the land and to regulate the Klondike gold rush.

From these fierce conditions the Mountie legend grew. A northern manhunt in 1932 established their reputation for always getting their man. After injuring one officer and starting a gun battle with an investigating patrol, Albert Johnson, later known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River, fled into the vast wilderness, wearing his snowshoes backwards to confound followers. He was killed in a gun battle a month and a half later.

Visitors will find stories of daring exploits, like negotiations with a plane hijacker; of historic events like the story of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, whose 1945 defection provided proof of a Soviet spy ring operating in Canada and ushered in the Cold War; of history-making changes, like graduation of the first women cadets in 1974; and of tragedy, like that of the Lost Patrol, who perished of cold and starvation on an 800-kilometre winter trek across Yukon Territory in 1910.

But it’s really special when exhibits draw the visitor into a different time and place. One such depicts the crucible March West, when about 300 NWMP trekked 1,300 kilometres from Manitoba to Alberta to destroy the whisky trade. By the time they arrived the traders had fled, but the troop built the first of a string of western outposts from which they established and maintained the law as well as relationships with the First Nations. Soon the land began filling up with peaceful settlements.

The exhibit showcases a modern film recreation of the march, with readings from the diary of Henri Julien, an artist invited along to document the1874 journey. His descriptions of the first sight of the Prairies, the difficulties endured by the men, and the stampede of horses frightened by lightning, are riveting.

Visitors can marvel at the size of the uniform of Sam Steele, perhaps the most recognizable Mountie in history. He led men on the March West, helped put down the North West Rebellion, policed the Canadian Pacific Railway line, settled interracial strife in B.C.’s Kootenays and became magistrate and controller of rations in the Yukon during the gold rush. Or they can try on a Mountie’s uniform themselves and pose for a picture. “This is a really popular exhibit for kids and adults as well,” says Karen Worobec, the Centre’s marketing and communications director. “People from all over the world have their pictures taken here, and they’re posting them on their blogs and online photo galleries.”

The exhibit that explores the force’s role in fighting international crime and terrorism in comic book fashion is interesting, informative and amusing, but not half the fun of the hands-on exhibit titled Cracking the Case, where visitors can themselves identify clues, use forensic investigation techniques, compare fingerprints and footprint evidence and uncover a murderer.

Having Depot Division on the doorstep adds another layer to the museum experience. Weekdays throughout the year troops are inspected and drilled during the Sergeant Major’s Parade. On Tuesdays in July and August the Sunset Retreat Ceremony features a performance by the RCMP Cadet Choir, a precision-marching drill by scarlet-clad cadets, military music, mounted members carrying lances and ceremonial lowering of the Canadian flag.

Serious visitors could bring a picnic lunch, or plan to stop at the healthy food kiosk in the centre’s lobby, and spend a whole day. A quick tour will take a couple of hours.

Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.