“Hey, you want to smoke a joint?” It takes a minute for RCMP Constable Jason Bundt to believe his ears. The guy leans in the open window of the truck and tries again—“You want to smoke a joint?” Then disappears into the darkness, laughing. Bundt grins.
It’s Saturday night in Dawson City, the bars just closed, and it’s minus 20. This small Yukon town has one very busy taxi. Not counting the RCMP.
Bundt had been sitting in his idling police truck outside The Pit, a notorious watering hole, watching the antics, when this guy wandered up, opened the backdoor of the truck and jumped in behind the bulletproof plastic and bars. “If you’re heading all the way out to C4 subdivision, go back into the bar and see if anyone else wants a ride out there,” says Bundt. The guy hops out and disappears into the closing bar. A few minutes later he’s back—alone. No one else needs a ride.
“There’s all these drug dealers in there,” he says, as Bundt drives out of town and up the highway. “One of them tried to jump me a few weeks back.” The guy is slurring his words. “Why don’t you guys ever arrest them?”
Bundt smiles. “We hear about them,” he says. “But we need proof beyond a reasonable doubt before we can take action. There’s so much policy.” It’s quiet in the truck. Bundt is in full uniform, gun belt, baton, a down bomber jacket. The heater is blasting.
He pulls up in front of a house in C4 several kilometres out of town. “Thanks,” says the guy, rolling down the window to open the backdoor from the outside—the only way to get out of the backseat of a cop car, or truck. He’s obviously done it before. He’s about to head into the dark house when he spins around, leans in the window and says, “Hey, you want to smoke a joint?”
The RCMP in the North is expected to be all things for all people. A century ago this meant delivering mail by dog team, posing as pharmacists, and tracking mad trappers. Now, police work in tiny northern communities is more about moonlighting as a taxi, playing snowshoe baseball, chasing stray dogs, and tracking down stolen Christmas lights. “In a big city, you’d never solve a crime like stolen Christmas lights,” says Bundt with a chuckle. “Here we have time to give attention to those files.”
Bundt’s burly, easy-going, and not big into busts. High-speed chases, rounding up crime rings, putting really bad dudes behind bars, sure, he does some of that TV-show policing. But he’s not into niggly piggly stuff, busting a bunch of teens passing around a bottle, ticketing a burnt out headlight, charging a dude for jokingly offering him a joint.
“There are some police who will grill guys if they smell pot,” he says. “I’d be more apt just to stop and ask what they’re up to.” It really depends on the cop. “With police, you run into a whole range.”
Bundt’s still driving around town, watching the bar crowd trickle home. Earlier, the officer he’s on duty with ambled through the bar in uniform, looking tough. But not Bundt. He doesn’t do “walkthroughs,” and avoids crashing house parties. “People go there to have fun,” he says. “So why show up and create a possible situation that could be avoided?” Someone flipping off his hat, or making a snide remark. “You don’t react and they think you’re weak,” he says. “Or you do, and they label you a bully. Better to let sleeping dogs lie.”
Young hipsters making their way home from the bar wave as Bundt drives past. He waves. There’s a late night road hockey game in full swing, both teams stopping mid-play to salute the big white cop truck. Two girls weaving up the sideway arm in arm turn and wave. Everyone waves.
Except one guy. He gives Bundt the finger. Bundt ignores it, keeps driving slowly past. “Better to let sleeping dogs lie.” The guy starts swearing. Bundt keeps driving. Then the guy lunges at the truck, screaming profanities.
“He was being obnoxious and I could have gotten out of the truck, beat the snot out of him and thrown him in the drunk tank for the night—or you can diffuse the situation.”
Bundt slams on the brakes and jumps out, seemingly simultaneously. He’s a big cop, well over six feet. “Why you so mad?” he says, not mad at all. The guy keeps yelling, drunkenly, something about another cop being rude to his girlfriend when she asked for a ride home. “Well don’t be mad at me,” says Bundt, calm. “I’m not that other cop, so no point swearing and being mad at me. Where you guys going?”
The guy and his girlfriend sheepishly climb into the backseat of Bundt’s truck. “You play hockey?” Bundt asks the guy, as he pulls onto the highway, heading back out toward C4 and the motel where the couple is staying. They talk family, sports, mention the caribou that are not too far out of town this year. Then they’re there.
In the motel parking lot, Bundt hops out to open the backdoor. This guy doesn’t know the roll-down-the-window trick. The couple gets out, thanks him for the ride. It would have been a long cold walk. They start heading toward their hotel, then suddenly the guy turns around, comes back and apologizes. He and Bundt shake hands.
“That could have been a situation,” says Bundt, driving back toward town. “He was being obnoxious and I could have gotten out of the truck, beat the snot out of him and thrown him in the drunk tank for the night—or you can diffuse the situation.”
Bundt’s worked in isolated Arctic communities where the RCMP detachment was surrounded by barbed wire. He’s had a guy he arrested come back and attempt to burn his house down. He’s also been welcomed into tiny villages like family.
It depends on the community, the cops and how good the RCMP is at rebuilding relationships and repairing shattered expectations.
David Gilbert thinks of himself as a repairman. The clean-cut civilian member, sporting a goatee and tie instead of a Taser, is tasked with fixing stuff the gun-toting members mess up. The mess that brought him from Ottawa to Whitehorse began in December 2008, when an intoxicated First Nations man from Carmacks, Yukon ended up in the Whitehorse drunk tank. Raymond Silverfox vomited 26 times in his cell during the 13 hours he was in custody. When the 43-year-old asked for a mat, one constable told him, “sleep in your own shit.” Staff did not get medical help until someone noticed Silverfox not moving. He died in hospital hours later.
This was awful. But no one called in Gilbert and his Post-it notes. Not yet.
The next winter, two off-duty RCMP officers in the town of Watson Lake, Yukon, admitted to taking a drunk woman back to one of the officers’ homes and engaging in, what they claim, was a consensual threesome. One of the officers had a child and a pregnant wife at home. The woman charged the cops with rape, but they were later acquitted. Both men remained in the force.
Gilbert was on a plane to Whitehorse the following year.
“These incidents were catalysts that uncovered existing gaps, cracks and problems in the relationship between the RCMP and our communities,” he says. “The relationship hadn’t been taken care of the way it needed to be, and under the weight of events like this, the cracks gave way.”
Gilbert blames expectations. In a small community, RCMP officers often take on tasks way beyond their pay grade, he says. There are stories of officers, in tiny towns without children’s services, heading to the local store to stock up on diapers after taking a baby in for the night. Or an elder calling 911, only to ask the officer who shows up at his door if he’d mind making him a sandwich.
“These expectations are sometimes hard to keep up with,” says Gilbert. Even ferrying drunk dudes home isn’t always a given. Cops can’t play taxi, if the only police on duty are suddenly called to a motor vehicle accident an hour down the highway. “But resentment builds up when expectations aren’t met,” he says.
Whether it’s as simple as denying a drunk a ride home, or as serious as fracturing public trust through something like Silverfox’s death, police have been losing that community connection. “A big part of my task, over the last three years, was to figure out how to get it back,” says Gilbert.
On his office walls are rows of colourful Post-it notes—lists of what needs to be done, as well as a satisfying Stickies wall of accomplished tasks. Get the RCMP working with local women’s groups—check. Get an independent oversight committee to investigate complaints against the RCMP—check. Get Yukon communities and local First Nations involved in choosing their detachment commanders—check. Make sure the air compressor is working in the tiny detachment of Beaver Creek—check.
Owning the only air compressor in town, arguably, does more for community relations than Gilbert’s Post-it list of big picture policy changes. Fixing flats, flooding the local hockey rink, offering rides in from the airport, these are things a community remembers.
The Dawson City RCMP puts on a pretty good BBQ. That’s one of the first things Paul Blanchard mentions. Oh, and the cops pluck drunks out of snow banks in winter to make sure they don’t freeze. That’s good too, he says.
Blanchard is at The Pit, chasing sips of Molson Canadian with shots of cheap whiskey. It’s early afternoon and rays of sun are creeping in through the bar’s dusty windows. “I haven’t been in jail an hour in my life,” says Blanchard. “So I don’t see much of the RCMP.”
Though he did have one very memorable run-in.
Blanchard was five when he first met the men in red serge. They were banging at the door, there to take him away to residential school. “My parents tried to hide me,” he says. “But the RCMP threatened to throw them in jail.”
Blanchard’s eyes fill with tears. He takes another swig of beer, and a shot of whiskey.
“I was gone 11 years,” he says. “That’s why I’m so screwed up.” He points at his drinks. “This kills the pain.”
Blanchard, 57, is well kept, sporting hikers, a crisp canvas jacket and Newfoundland ball cap. He worked in the bush much of his life and later for the local First Nation’s heritage department. “The RCMP enforced the law for the church,” he says. “Because of that history, First Nations don’t trust them.”
An intoxicated woman stumbles into the bar and hugs Blanchard. She was at residential school too, he says. He asks her what she thinks of the RCMP. “They don’t care about us,” she says.
“It was so frustrating. I’d be making a legitimate arrest and they’d be saying, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.’ You just don’t know what to say or how to make it better.”
Constable Angela Spicer was working in Whitehorse when Silverfox died, and she knew those cops in Watson Lake accused of rape. One of them replaced her when she transferred. “It was a pretty shitty situation,” she says. “But you have to deal with it and move on.”
A decade ago, the RCMP apologized for its role in Canada’s shameful residential school legacy, and its members helped out at recent truth and reconciliation hearings. In Whitehorse, the RCMP admitted Silverfox endured “insensitive and callous treatment in RCMP custody,” and that it “failed to respect and live up to the standards and values that … all Canadians expect.”
After Silverfox died, everyone Spicer arrested screamed bloody murder. “It was so frustrating,” she says. “I’d be making a legitimate arrest and they’d be saying, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.’ You just don’t know what to say or how to make it better.”
It’s late night in Iqaluit, Nunavut, where Spicer is now stationed. She’s driving around in a big white cop truck, just like Bundt’s. Only her seat is worn out in one corner, where the butt of her gun rubs into the upholstery.
“We joke that when we transfer back south our perception of intoxicated and sober will be really skewed. Up here we say they’re intoxicated, down south we’d likely take them to the hospital. We’re constantly seeing people here at a level where they should be dead.”
She does a lot of driving around. Last night, she just happened upon “a domestic,” that way. A man was beating up his girlfriend on the front porch as she drove past. Tonight, she’s back at the house to check on the victim.
Spicer, tall and strong, with her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, throws on a black toque to make her look tougher, before heading up to the dark house and knocking on the door. No one answers. “Maybe she’s with family,” she says. “Maybe she’s at the bar.”
Spicer figures alcohol accounts for roughly 95 percent of her calls. “We joke that when we transfer back south our perception of intoxicated and sober will be really skewed,” she says. “Up here we say they’re intoxicated, down south we’d likely take them to the hospital. We’re constantly seeing people here at a level where they should be dead.”
Spicer heads to her next follow-up. Another girl beaten up by her boyfriend last night. They’d been partying. Spicer takes pictures of the bruises under the young girl’s eye and up one side of her freckled face.
Follow-ups aren’t necessarily part of the job. “But I like to see how they’re doing,” she says. Even if it seems completely pointless, like this case. After only a night in jail, the judge released the boyfriend, on condition he doesn’t contact his girlfriend and their toddler. Spicer shakes her head. “I’ve seen guys get released and go back and kill their girlfriend,” she says. “There’s nothing you can do.”
Spicer has seen a lot of terrible things. Most cops do. Bad stuff involving children is the hardest, she says. “And the smell of a dead body, it’s like nothing else. You never forget it.”
Spicer knows she’s going home every night. That she’ll see her twin girls and husband, also a cop, again. “You have to think that way,” she says. “Or it would be crazy.”
More than 220 Mounties have been killed on duty since the 1870s. The last time an officer was shot and killed in Nunavut, a few years back, residents in Iqaluit gathered at the RCMP detachment, circled the building holding hands and sang Amazing Grace.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” says Spicer. She likes this. It keeps her sharp. On her toes. “I never allow myself to get complacent,” she says. “Because if you do, you may not go home.” In remote northern towns, back up is measured in hours and days, not minutes. “So you can’t really afford to have a bad attitude,” she says. “In communities we rely on each other.”
Spicer’s still driving around, swinging past the local bar every so often. It’s wing night. There are some officers doing walkthroughs. But like Bundt, Spicer avoids them. “Every time I go in there I see someone who’s on (probation) conditions, like no drinking,” she says. “But if they’re not causing any problems, why drag them out kicking and screaming. Sometimes that causes more issues than not.”
A few years back, Spicer had a new recruit shadowing her on the job. The fledgling officer wanted absolutes: When someone does X, the RCMP does Y.
But Spicer doesn’t play by hard and fast rules. “You always have the option to give someone a finger wag,” she says. “You have the ability to use your discretion. It all depends on my history with that person.”
She’s going to miss knowing everyone in the community: the homeless men who live in shacks on the beach, the kids playing high on snow piles, and the carvers who sit out on their porches coaxing polar bears from soapstone, at all hours.
Spicer wanted to stay in the North. But her girls are getting older, and it made sense to move closer to family. So this past fall, she and her husband transferred to Ontario, where the calls are fast, furious, relatively impersonal, and she no longer needs an Inuktitut nametag stitched to her uniform in gold syllabics.
The calls in Whitehorse are fast and furious. Even on a Tuesday night. The first one is from a guy whose girlfriend just texted saying she’d swallowed a bunch of pills. Two cop cars head toward the house. No sirens. Roaring through stop signs and running red lights, cherries flashing, creates its own risks, and this doesn’t sound like an emergency.
The police park on the road, and after knocking, let themselves into the dark suburban bungalow. Flashlights beam around the kitchen, the living room. They find her in bed. Ask about the pills. She did take a bunch, but is willing to go to the hospital, so they don’t have to arrest her and force her to get help. Still an officer decides to follow the ambulance, in case she changes her mind.
The radio crackles. An alarm is going off at a local mall. More static, another call. A cabbie’s being aggressively tailed by a little blue car. He’s scared. Next call. A man passed out in the Westmark hotel bathroom—drunk.
“Some people won’t ever like the police. But I want more people to see us as human, not only enforcement.”
The cops know this guy. He spends most nights in the new arrest processing unit at the jail. Not long after Silverfox died, this glorified drunk tank replaced the cells downtown at the cop shop. There are lots of guards on duty, medical expertise on hand, and a big cooler of watered-down juice the drunks can’t get enough of.
Another cop shows up at the new unit, with another drunk dude. He picked this fellow up at hospital after dropping off the suicide attempt.
The officers know almost all of the guys in the drunk tank. “Every now and then they’ll say something about their life, or their kids, and you suddenly remember these guys are dads,” says one of the officers at the processing unit.
The regulars spend their nights sleeping off booze on matts scattered around the cell floor, swigging back watery juice. In the morning, most fold their blankets neatly at the bottom of their mats, a habit one of the guards credits as a holdover from residential school.
Bundt's boss does walkthroughs. Sergeant Dave Wallace doesn’t sidle into The Pit in Dawson to look tough and intimidate. He heads into the local watering hole to talk with guys like Blanchard, drunk residential school survivors who don’t trust the cops. “Some people won’t ever like the police,” he says. “But I want more people to see us as human, not only enforcement.”
It’s a Monday evening. Wallace and Bundt are drinking coffee at the detachment. It’s dead. A good time to catch up on paperwork, something both men detest.
Bundt calls it squirrel syndrome, and figures he spends about 70 percent of his time writing up police reports at the computer. Wallace, sporting a camo ball cap and a jean shirt under his navy RCMP jacket, only spends about 40 percent of his shifts at the desk. He’s behind on his paperwork. “Technology keeps us away from the public,” he says.
Privacy laws and access to information requirements mean police today spend a lot more time filing reports than during Gold Rush days, while the switch from horses and dog teams to cars and trucks has done away with face-to-face contact.
Though in small northern communities, cops like Wallace and Bundt still find time to fire up snow machines and head into the bush to bring trappers mail and meds. “All these things we would have done years ago, we’re still doing,” says Wallace. “Because we’re still part of the community, and the community is part of us.”
Wallace has been working in remote northern communities for the past 17 years. He’s coached minor hockey, helped pull porcupine quills out of dogs, delivered the worst news imaginable to strangers and friends, spent afternoons cutting firewood for elders, hauled shivering canoeists out of rivers, posed in red serge with American tourists, and shared meals in wall tents with First Nations kids on their first caribou hunt.
“This is my home,” he says. “I’m a citizen of this town and I help out my friends, so why wouldn’t I help out people as a police officer?”
In a small town, the drunk dude Wallace drives home might be the same guy who works as a liaison for the local community court, or the teenager he catches smoking pot by the river could be the son of his hunting buddy, families who’ve sat down together for Thanksgiving dinner.
“I treat everyone how I would want to be treated,” he says. “Because in the end, we’re all humans.”
“Every police officer polices differently. I try not to push my authority on people. I’ve had warnings myself, and always appreciated them."
This past summer was Wallace and Bundt’s last in Dawson. Postings in northern towns are usually two to three years, partly to ensure police don’t get too close to the community, and vice versa. But it still happens.
Wallace could easily be accused of too many finger waves, not enough charges. Though he’s proven respect is an effective deterrent. Friends have admitted they almost drove home after one too many, only to imagine Wallace pulling them over. It’s hard to say who would be more embarrassed. So they walked.
“Every police officer polices differently,” he says. “I try not to push my authority on people.” Like Bundt and Spicer, Wallace isn’t big into tickets. Just warnings. “I’ve had warnings myself, and always appreciated them,” he says.
He pulled over an acquaintance a while back, a young guy he knew from around town, and reminded him to buckle up. The next night there was a bad accident up the highway. Four young guys were in the vehicle. One was the fellow he’d stopped the day before. He was wearing a seatbelt—and lived.
The guy called Wallace a few days later to thank him for saving his life. “I thought of you when I got in the car,” he said. “That’s why I put on my seatbelt.”
Spicer’s had calls like this too. Out of the blue, sometimes months after the fact, someone will phone and thank her. “We forget the things we do everyday can change someone’s life,” she says, whether it’s lifting drunk folks out of snow banks at 40 below, giving a simple seatbelt warning, or bashing down the door and breaking up a domestic assault.
One of the officers in Whitehorse remembers cops coming into her house as a little girl. It wasn’t a happy family situation, and the police were there often, stopping the violence, offering a reprieve. Now, she’s a cop, returning the favour.
This is why we do it, says Wallace. “Because you never know when you might make a difference.”