I felt his hot breath of fiery judgment burn the back of my neck as his menacing voice snarled in my ear, “Drop down and give me 30, Cadet Nieder, and don’t try and sneak in any of those girly push-ups this time or I’ll make it 50!” I bolted upright in my bed, sweat dripping from every pore, only to realize it was a just dream…a version of the same dream that had haunted me for the last several months.
As a luxury travel writer I am much more familiar with fine linen thread counts rather then counting push-ups, however, a few months ago I attended the Canadian Media Marketplace in San Francisco where about 200 writers were networking with representatives from various destinations throughout Canada. Guarding the door, in a blaze of scarlet and gold and spit-polished, knee-high leather boots, was the first Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) I’d ever seen. He had the same expressionless demeanor as a Buckingham Palace guard. It could have been the comical, Dudley Do-Right hat he was wearing or maybe it was the four glasses of Canadian wines I had been “tasting”, but I couldn’t resist sauntering up to him and saying, “You know, I think I could take you in a no-holds barred fight.” I remember thinking to myself, I’m about 4 inches taller, thinner and probably a lot faster so how tough could he be? When I asked how much he could bench press he quietly muttered something I couldn’t understand out of the side of his lips. I asked him again and this time I made out “350!”
Yikes…I don’t care if that’s in pounds, kilos or centimeters, it sounded pretty tough to me. I stepped back, eyeballed him again, and saw that although short he was built like a refrigerator. I meekly slithered away, but not before my comments were overheard by the head of Regina Tourism, which coincidentally just happens to be the training headquarters for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Next thing I knew (darn that wine) I had signed up for a Regina press trip which would feature “Farm to Table” food AND the incredibly rare opportunity to spend 24 hours training with the RCMP cadets! Thus began months of unsettling nightmares, up until the big day finally arrived.
It all started benignly enough when I met the other two American journalists, who had also signed their lives away for the opportunity to be a “Cadet for a day” at Regina’s RCMP Academy, “Depot” Division. One was from Washington State, around 70 years old with a bad back and a few extra pounds and the other was a young woman from Philly who had injured her foot. She could only limp around in a soft black bootie cast (not quite the attire they had in mind for Boot Camp) so I knew that at least I could kick their butts. Then we joined forces with a British media group, who were much younger and tougher,This was the culmination of their week long “Be a Man” Saskatchewan press trip. Hence forth, we would be known collectively as Troop M (for Media). We would spend the 24 hours at the RCMP Academy, aka the “Depot Division”, which has trained 60,000 cadets over 130 years. For one day we would experience just a mini-version of the grueling six-month program the cadets must endure.
We first toured the RCMP Heritage Centre, harmless enough, which tells the history of the RCMP from the wild frontier days of gold-mining and whiskey trading to today’s high tech policing skills.
We then filed into the Fort Dufferin Boardroom for our pre-boot camp orientation, where we met our Depot Division leaders, Sergeant Pharanae Jaques-Croisetiere and Corporal Sean Chiddenon. Both were impressive physical specimens- well over 6 feet tall and tough as nails. We learned the basic rules: carry ourselves with deportment at all times, go from point A to point B as quickly and quietly as possible and don’t walk on the sidewalks because we had not earned that right. We learned that just about every piece of a cadet’s uniform was “earned”, from trading up from their beginner sneakers to boots, and plastic guns for the real deal. If you screw-up, for example by failing to salute an officer, then back go the earned goods and you have to start all over again…plus do a helluva lot of push-ups. (I can’t tell you how many times we heard the phrase “Push-ups are for Screw-ups!)
We were issued our kit (a RCMP navy t-shirt and baseball cap with our names printed on them) and then we basically signed away our lives for the next 24 hours.
We were encouraged to ask questions, so I eagerly waved my hand until I caught Corporal Sean’s attention and asked, “If a Navy Seal, a Green Beret and a RCMP walk into a bar and start a fight, who will win?”
“ Probably not us,” the imposing 6'4', 248-pound Corporal replied. “We’re trained as peacekeepers so we prefer not to fight.”
Next I was given the key to a barren beige room, furnished with a hard twin bed covered with zero-thread count sheets, a functional desk, chair and lamp, locked metal boxes used for gun storage (way above my paygrade) hooks and shelves for our “uniforms” and the world’s skinniest bar of soap, which paired perfectly with the thin towels in our (thankfully) private bathroom.
As I was unpacking my make-up, which I later learned none of the female cadets used, I glanced down at my watch and noticed I only had two minutes to join the rest of Troop M out front for our feeble attempt at marching to the mess hall for our 5:00 dinner.
The food was surprisingly good. There was always a fresh salad bar, as well as a variety of fruit and yogurt to choose from, plus some vegetarian options. At one lunch we had some yummy bison burgers and home fries that could have been winners on a Top Chef Quick-Fire challenge. There was an assortment of freshly baked cakes and cookies for dessert as well as a Slurpee machine, soft ice-cream dispenser and a wide selection of juices, smoothies and soft drinks. Except for the no alcohol policy, I could get used to this. I noticed that many of the cadets would line their meal trays with four or five big glasses of orange juice. When I commented on this, they said this was the fastest way to reenergize since they burn so many calories training.
Informative Dinner in the mess hall
We shared an enlightening supper with Troop 4, our “big brother/sister” troop--a wildly impressive bunch of 32 young cadets who were on week eight of their 24-week training. They all came from different places with different stories but a few commonalities quickly emerged:
1. The main reason for joining was to help people.
2. The hardest part was being away from their families.
3. Time management was extremely challenging for almost all of them. The cadets told us that although officially they train Monday thru Friday 8- 4:30 they really put in at least 60-80 hours a week once you include the time spent on homework, shooting range practice, perfecting their driving skills, marching drills, working out at the gym, ironing their shirts, polishing their boots, etc.
(This brings to mind one nifty little mountie trick I picked up. When I asked how they keep their shoes so shiny, one plebe whipped off his cap to show me a nylon stocking he kept hidden there. “It makes a great little shoe shiner for last minute inspections,” he divulged.)
“Oh wait, I just thought of the totally hardest part,” one earnest young man exclaimed. “It’s definitely the pepper spray.” Everyone at the table sagely nodded their heads in agreement. He explained that each cadet had to not only experience getting a face full of burning pepper spray; they then had to complete an obstacle course, call for help and identify the bad guys before they could wash their eyes in cold water.
By comparison, getting tasered is a walk in the park. One gorgeous cadet (a dead ringer for Christie Brinkley) told me that her mom was still having a tough time handling the fact that daughter had gone into RCMP instead of modeling.
“She keeps telling me that when all her friends are proudly showing her pictures of their first grandchildren, in return all she has to show is the photo I sent her of my taser marks,” she said with a rueful chuckle.
A male cadet standing next to her said, “Oh, I didn’t know that you already got tasered.”
She quickly pulled up her pant leg revealing some angry red marks on her calf and says excitedly, “I think it’s going to leave a scar.”
“Oh sweet!” he responded.
“I know,” she replied with a satisfied smile.
But the most surprising feedback was that even though the training was exhausting in every way, many of the cadets said that they have never been happier. I think one of the reasons might be the incredibly tight, familial bond that the troops develop. It is drilled into them from day one that “You succeed as a troop or fail as a troop” so everyone has each other’s back at all times.
Good night and good luck trying to have sweet dreams
I set both my phone and alarm for 5:15 a.m. so I’d have plenty of time to make my bed, get dressed and tame my hair under my cap before joining my troop for our “march” to the Parade Square. We were there to observe the Morning Parade (where we could really tell how feeble our marching skills were by comparison) before we eating a hearty breakfast in the mess hall.
My dream started to became real when we reported to our drill instructor, the uber-scary, no-nonsense Sergeant Mayor T. Patterson, the first female S.M. at Depot. She only had an hour to whip our ragtag troop into marching fools and I must say, she really gave it her all, thumping her drill cane in beat against the ground as she barked out, “Atteeeeention, Count-off, March Right, and the blessed At Ease”.
She had us line up according to height, trained us how to count off (stand ramrod straight and when it’s your turn, shout out your number while crisply snapping your head to the right) and the correct way to cross your hands when standing at-ease. We were all more than a little afraid of her, until once she walked in front of me leaving behind … a whiff of perfume????? It was then that I noticed that the hand clasping her baton, was sporting a perfect French manicure. At the end of the hour, with twinkling eyes and a warm smile, she told us that we were doing great! What’s this-a kinder, gentler drill sergeant?
“It’s always been my philosophy to treat people how you want to be treated: So respect yourself, respect others and have respect for our organization,” Patterson explained. “But make no mistake, the cadets are still afraid of me.”
Then it was time for the dreaded fitness training, led by Lesly and Jason whose combined bodyfat total was on par with an anorexic hummingbird. We divided into two teams where we warmed-up by running laps around the gym, which counted as a full work-out for many of us. Then one team did 5 to 1 repetitions of burpees, pushups, medicine balls slams and sit-ups, while the other half did a functional training circuit which consisted of walking a balance beam, scaling a wall, crawling under a post, dragging an uncooperative, 180 pound dummy, all tasks which simulated on-the-job police work. Then, with my fuel tank hovering near empty, we had to take a timed PARE (Physical Abilities Requirement Evaluation) test. PARE is an occupational test that accesses a cadet’s ability to perform the physical demands of police work: running, jumping, climbing stairs, vaulting, lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling. We only had to do one circuit although the actual test requires 6 repetitions.
Hot, tired and sweaty, we had a grand total of 5 minutes to change out of our gym clothes, shower and make it over to the Applied Police Science building in time for out next class. It was becoming crystal clear how “time management” was a ruling factor here so I elected to just swipe on a little more deodorant and nix the shower, which turned out to be the right choice because if I had been just 2 seconds later we would have had to drop down for a round of push-ups. Now I understood why we often saw troops “doubling" from class to class, which is double time marching, with arms bent at the elbows clutched tightly against their chest, which I found hysterically funny looking.
The Applied Police Science class was one of my better ones, having picked up some useful tips from watching endless hours of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. We were just settling down for our lecture when a rather threatening looking black guy came barging in and started harassing a young woman before he stormed out a few minutes later. Unbeknownst to many of us this was the lead in for our next assignment, which was to split into teams with one person being the eyewitness and the other taking on the role of the police trying to gather information.
We immediately saw how easily eyewitnesses, although well meaning, can be swayed or mistaken. We were shocked to find out that about the only we all agreed on was that the man was black--other than that he was everything from 5’5 to 5’10, bald, shaved head, curly haired, bearded, goateed and clean shaven.
(Time out for a little bragging, I was the only one who had taken notes during the interviewing process, which got me a few brownie points, since Corporal Sean had emphatically stated, “There are 3 critical things a cadet must have at all times: a watch ( to check the time of the incidence) a pad and two pens- in case one runs out of ink.”
Thank God it’s finally time for lunch
I raced back (oops, I mean double-timed it) to my room to grab my cell phone before lunch and quickly realized that I desperately needed some remedial work in time management. By the time I made it to mess hall, I only had three minutes for a couple massive bites of that yummy bison burger, washed down by big gulps of O.J., while standing in the buss-your-own-dishes line which left me 30 seconds for a much needed bathroom break.
Troop M shines at Sergeant Major’s parade
By now I was ready to sell my soul for an extra five seconds to brush my teeth but instead I had to scurry to join Troop M for our “coming out party”, the Sergeant Major’s Parade. Every Mon, Wed and Fri afternoon the troops are presented in full pomp and circumstance (including a marching band) to the Sergeant Major, the big cheese in charge of protocol and ceremonies. As tired as we were, it was a real honor to be able to participate and we were looking forward to strutting out stuff. But first we had to endure inspection by the sharp-eyed (and tongue) Corporal Penny Hermann, who was in charge of roll call and troop inspection. Like a bird dog sniffing out her prey, she would dart up and down the rows searching out offenders. She lightly snapped her stick against a cadet whose fingers were curled too tightly during “At Ease”, yelling out terse corrections in both French and English. Some were actually quite funny and I had to bite my cheek not to laugh out loud, particularly when she nailed one cadet with a “Cadet Wong, Did you not get enough food at lunch today?”
“Yes I did, Ma’am.”
“Then why are your pants trying to crawl up and eat your butt? Pull them down NOW!”
Then came the part we had all been waiting for: Troop M was presented. Standing a good two inches taller than usual, shoulders back, head erect, my heart thumping against my RCMP navy t-shirt, I crisply marched with the rest of the troop to the thundering applause of the visitors (Ok, so maybe there was only a handful of them but they did clap!) We were dumbstruck when Sergeant Mayor T. Patterson walked over and congratulated us on an excellent job!
Aim for Center Mass
We were still all flushed and giddy with excitement as we entered the shooting range for our firearms session and quickly donned the bulky Kevlar vests, ear plugs, and safety glasses. This was my first time holding a gun, which in this case was a 40 caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic, so maybe I can be excused from continually muttering "Say hello to my 'lil friend" which somehow got lost in Canadian translation.
The instructions were minimal, which was ok because I could barely hear a word, but basically I was told to “aim for the center mass and slowly squeeze the trigger.”
I have to admit that as bad-ass as I looked, my shooting left something to be desired. I was surprised at the recoil and how hard it was to pull the trigger steadily. After a dozen shots, my index finger (the only thing that hadn’t been sore from the previous fitness class) was now aching. However, one of the Brits from Troop M shot a perfect score and since we “rise or fall as a team”…it was all good.
Million dollar car chase
I was sure I was going to redeem myself at the driving class as I’ve always considered myself a good driver, having spent many years driving the streets of New York and it doesn’t get much more harrowing than that. We entered what looked like a big video game room, filled with eight pricey, state-of-the-art driving simulators. RCMP is world renown for their dedicated emergency police vehicle simulated Training Unit. Cadets spend 65 hours practicing driving techniques under a variety of challenging circumstances, while they also have to maintain observational skills and use of the radio while steering.
I grabbed a peppermint from a large bowl on the front desk, wondering if perhaps our instructor suffered from halitosis and didn’t want to offend, and then strapped myself into the seat. Once the video began I cockily put the pedal to the metal, weaving around the other cars.
“You might want to check your speed since you’re going about 160 kms an hour,” the instructor told me in a quiet, non-judgmental tone.
When I stole a quick peek at the speedometer, mentally trying to calculate kms to miles, he (this time much louder and much less non-judgmentally) pointed out that I had just killed a family of three crossing the street. I belatedly slammed on the brakes only to start skidding off the highway in the snow that had started to fall. As I wildly swung the wheel the other direction, I felt my bison burger rise up in my throat, and for the next 2 minutes I was more car sick then I’ve been since I was 6 years old and my family was driving through Death Valley without air-con.
I found out later that many cadets suffer from SAS, Simulator Adaption Syndrome, which is described as an “ill feeling similar to motion sickness.) Hence the big bowl of mints!
Our Graduation Ceremony
With mixed emotions I headed over to the Chapel (the oldest building in Regina) to receive my graduation certificate. I was still a little green around the gills, exhausted, aching from my marching feet to my trigger finger, and admittedly smelling a wee bit ripe. I also was filled with a great sense of pride and achievement.
We were thrilled that the Commanding Officer of RCMP “Depot” Division,” Chief Superintendent Louise Lafrance, had taken time out of her busy schedule to present us with our certificates. Although this attractive blond looked like she would be completely at home hosting a garden tea party, she has been a member of RCMP since 1985 and previously she was the first female police officer on a municipal police force in Mont Laurier, Quebec.
One thing she told us, which I believe comes from having more females in the RCMP, was “We pride ourselves on the people we hire. One of our greatest strengths is the core’s compassion, which not that many years ago would have been considered a weakness.
After spending the last 24 hours with these hard-working, dedicated cadets, I know that if I lived in Canada I’d certainly sleep better knowing the RCMP are standing guard. If they ever want to branch out and start a Royal American Mounted Police division, I’m signing up!
Note: Visit the RCMP Heritage Centre site for details about joining RCMP for a driving tour through the “Depot”, to catch the Sergeant Major’s Parade or other special events.