The highest-ranking RCMP officer in Alberta was having a hard time walking through the halls of Edmonton headquarters because of all the hugs. First, there was an officer from the RCMP's child sexual-exploitation centre, and then a woman who works in the awards and recognition section. And then it was a member of the office cleaning staff, who took one of the country's top police officers by the hands and told her how much she would be missed.
There had been a lot of hugs during Marianne Ryan's last week as commanding officer for the RCMP in Alberta, a similar scene playing out again and again. Officers had flown in from across the country at their own expense to pay their respects, and there was a steady flow of accolades and gifts from various people and communities – among them an area mayor who hobbled in on crutches to give Ms. Ryan a painting and a hug, and a First Nations leader who gave her a star blanket and a blessed eagle feather for her work with Indigenous communities. In an organization not typically known for being touchy- feely, there had also been a lot of tears.
"It's so genuine," said Janine Richardson, who had been Ms. Ryan's strategic adviser and witnessed many of the goodbyes.
"They genuinely love her."
The best boss they had ever seen
Ms. Ryan's 35-year career with the RCMP is not the story some have come to expect. In a period marred by high-profile claims of harassment, discrimination and sexism, – particularly in B.C., where she spent a decade of her career – Ms. Ryan reached one of the force's highest positions as an openly gay female officer.
She is one of only six women who have ever achieved the rank of deputy commissioner in RCMP history, and the first to hold that position in Alberta. From that post, she led the province's 4,200 RCMP members and staff through untold daily risks, traumatic life-threatening events such as the Fort McMurray fire, and officer shootings.
Those who have worked with her describe her as "the ultimate role model," "the embodiment of the RCMP's core values" and "the real deal." More than one person said she was the best boss they ever had.
In some ways, she is a contradiction. Sensitive but tough, a leader with such easy rapport her subordinates and staff feel comfortable enough to hug her, but who also inspires such great respect that, even after her retirement, they struggle with the idea of calling her "Marianne" instead of Ma'am.
"I don't think I can. She'll always be 'boss,'" said Superintendent Brian Jones, a veteran officer who served on Ms. Ryan's executive team for two years and is now the RCMP's second-in-command in the Yukon. He said Ms. Ryan was a natural leader in an environment of strong personalities, a woman who had no qualms about making tough decisions and somehow had the ability to "take the ego out of the room."
'I went into it because it looked excited and challenging'
Ms. Ryan was sworn into the RCMP on May 11, 1982, eight years after women were allowed on the force. Entering a male-dominated organization, Ms. Ryan soon got used to being the only woman in the room, but although there was sexism around, she never saw a female officer's safety being compromised and always knew if she called a 10-33 – the code an officer needs help – backup would be there.
"I didn't go into it to break any barriers or break any ceilings. I went into it because it looked excited and challenging, and they let me do a lot of great stuff," she says. "I would hear comments and I would see things, but I kind of built up this immunity because, to me, the job was so great, and the challenge and the excitement and the opportunity to do something really great in terms of helping people was so much more powerful than those other jerks."
One of five children raised on a family farm in Ontario, she proved herself a hard worker and a talented investigator, and rose quickly from her first posting in Thompson, Man., into major drug-investigation units, first in Manitoba and later in B.C., where she would head the Vancouver Integrated Proceeds of Crime Section and the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit targeting gangs and organized crime.
Ms. Ryan says that for a while, she tried to be the kind of RCMP officer she thought would get ahead, modelling herself after the "aggressive A-type men" who seemed to be succeeding in the force at the time. But she ultimately decided she had to be herself, which included being more openly caring and compassionate, and being seen by some as "maternal."
"I'm unique, without a doubt," she laughs. "I still think there's probably veterans out there that are like, 'What the hell is that? Where did she come from?' The old-school kind of stuff. But I've learned it works for me and I'm comfortable with it. I learned to trust just being myself."
Those within her ranks share countless stories of her reaching out personally to officers and staff, moments of concern and personal connection uncommon at the upper ranks of a police force.
Ms. Ryan met her partner, Lorie Drummond, while giving a talk at RCMP Depot in Regina in 1999. Ms. Drummond said she was struck by Ms. Ryan's integrity and authenticity, and attributes Ms. Ryan's success as a leader to the fact that she always tries to do the right thing herself, and inspires others to be their best.
"Sometimes people want to get behind somebody because they're a great person, a great leader, not because they feel they have to fall in line simply because of rank," she says.
The RCMP across the country has grappled with serious issues and criticism in recent years, including for its relationship with First Nations communities, which is something Ms. Ryan personally focused on during her time in Alberta.
Roy Louis, a First Nations community leader from Maskwacis, said he gave Ms. Ryan the star blanket and eagle feather as symbols of the respect as symbols of great respect and admiration for her work with Indigenous people, and for her attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women. She fought back tears as he wrapped the blanket around her.
On the darkest days, when there were officers hurt, Ms. Ryan says it was important for her to see the officers and their families as soon as possible. One of Ms. Ryan's older sisters was killed by an impaired driver when they were young, and she is acutely aware of how families are notified, and how they are treated after a tragedy. Supt. Jones recalls being with her when they learned an officer had been injured. It was shortly after Ms. Ryan was promoted to commanding officer.
"He'd been run over. There's broken bones, there's blood and she's telling him that it's going to be okay and that we're going to be there for him," he says. "I don't remember how we got in there from the car to the treatment room. She was just this force. Just this energy force. Polite, professional, but people got out of the way. It was one of the most amazing things."
But those moments – and the knowledge of how many more there could be – take their toll. For years, Ms. Ryan has slept only fitfully, waiting for the phone to ring and knowing she had to be ready to jump into action when it did.
After 3 1/2 years as commanding officer, and three years as the province's second-in-command before that, Ms. Ryan said she knew it was time to go.
"You can only run, I think, at this intensity for so long, and I think you need to recognize, as much as you love the job, can you still continue to say you're the best person for the job?" she says.
'Continue to make me proud, okay?'
Early on Monday morning, on the first day of her last week as an RCMP officer, Deputy Commissioner Ryan addressed a group of newly sworn members preparing to be dispatched to posts around the province. They wore crisp new uniforms and bullet-proof vests that said POLICE on the chest.
From a table at the front of the room, Ms. Ryan told them frankly about the doubts she'd had at times, about her hard days and some of the memories that bother her still. She told them to be safe. To take care of their communities, themselves and each other. To investigate each case fully and carefully, to take opportunities and think big. To remember that there is something special about being a Mountie, and to know that any one of them could one day be in her chair. Most of all, she urged them to not only be good cops, but good people.
"I'm going to be watching and rooting and cheering for you," she told them. "Continue to make me proud, okay?"