What is it about December that inspires a spike in Royal Canadian Mounted Police trinkets? Christmas-tree ornaments, snow globes, teapots, glassware, serving platters with tiny Mountie men standing at attention around the rim, novelty socks, throw pillows – and that's just one table at one downtown Toronto Indigo store.
On Instagram, I came across an RCMP-themed nativity scene – Mary and Joseph played by Mounties, the wise men (just two of them) by a beaver and a moose, the baby Jesus a hunk of clay swaddled in a red maple leaf.
There's Mountie wrapping paper, winter hats with pompoms on top, pyjamas, canisters of tea, cheese knives, enamel pins.
For many, the symbolism of the RCMP represents a sincere, albeit naive, sense of national pride alongside other relatively harmless Canadian insignias – maple syrup, plaid, snowshoes, moose, all of which surge in visibility around the holidays. Walk by any boutique gift shop in Toronto's Annex or Queen West shopping districts and you'll find window displays charmingly aglow with ornaments meant to inspire sentiment in passersby. Among the kitschy Canadiana and borderline menacing Santa Claus ornaments are always, for some reason, a handful of Mountie trifles – there's a beaver in an RCMP uniform, a moose in an RCMP uniform, a snowman in an RCMP uniform and, most sinister of all, an RCMP officer in an RCMP uniform. (Nothing says "Season's Greetings" like a cop dangling from your Christmas tree.)
One supposes there are two kinds of shoppers who purchase RCMP holiday merchandise: those who are so smitten by the cute, cartoonish design that they forget the weapon-wielding characters adorning the handle of a cheese knife represent the carceral state, and those who just love the police.
For the latter, RCMP trinket shopping is not limited to the seasonal offerings of Indigo locations and local gift shops. The Mountie Shop website, the RCMP's official retailer, sells ornaments (such as a 14-inch wooden Mountie Nutcracker), pins and other memorabilia, though the aesthetic is more conservative. For the younger, trendier consumer, there's also the Drake General Store's Arborist collection, which "represents our home and native land in a playful, quirky way, with a nod to nostalgia and pop culture," says Kate Chippindale, the Drake General Store's senior manager of marketing and business development. The Arborist collection features coasters, scarves, socks, children's apparel and adult-sized onesies, fashionably illustrated in a contemporary style one might associate with music-gig posters or craft-beer labels.
Through a licensing partnership, 10 per cent of Arborist collection sales are transferred to the RCMP Foundation, an "independent, arm's-length, charitable organization that initiates, develops and supports community programs across Canada for the benefit of children and youth at risk," according to its website. (Net proceeds from the Mountie Shop also go directly to the foundation.)
Ms. Chippindale notes that though Arborist items are for sale year-round, Mountie items perform "especially well" during the holidays, likely due to their festive aethestic. In other words: Mounties look like elves.
The bright red jacket and Nutcracker-posture may seem jocund, but we mustn't forget that Mounties are cops. I wouldn't want 12 human police officers huddled around my living room on Christmas morning. Why would I want them painted on my mug as I get covertly tipsy at 10:30 a.m.?
Pearl Harding-Hao, an Edmonton woman who I found via an Instagram search for #MountieOnesie, told me she doesn't view the RCMP as scary, but instead as kind, strong, brave and dignified. "It's easy to take comfort in a symbol of the true north, something that belongs to only us," she says, adding that a family member once gave her a Mountie Barbie for Christmas. (The 2013 doll release was part of Mattel's Dolls of the World collection. It sold out in days.)
Ms. Chippindale says that Arborist's design team "works closely with [the RCMP] to ensure we are representing the foundation and the Mounties in an accurate way."
Which brings us to the real issue. Far more distressing than the idea of having an after-breakfast nap on a pillow bedecked with buzz-killing cartoon cops is that by accessorizing with festive Mountie merchandise, corrupt police behaviour, including police brutality, is tacitly condoned.
Some things you might consider while sipping eggnog from a goblet festooned with Mounties on horseback this week: In 2011, RCMP constable Kevin Theriault took an intoxicated Indigenous woman out of her jail cell and drove her to his northern Manitoba home, intent on "[pursuing] a personal relationship" with her. According to documents obtained by the CBC, Constable Theriault's supervisor, aware of the situation, told him, "You arrested her, you can do whatever the fuck you want to do." Constable Theriault's punishment was one week without pay.
In 2015, then-RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson admitted at an annual meeting of First Nations chiefs in Gatineau, that "there are racists in my police force" (although he added, "I don't want them to be in my police force"). The year before that, the Enhancing Royal Canadian Mounted Police Accountability Act came into force as an attempt to adequately handle reports of RCMP officer misconduct after widespread complaints about the lack of public accountability. This year, a class-action sexual-harassment settlement awarded roughly $89-million to women formerly employed by the RCMP who endured gender-based harassment by their male colleagues.
In the 2013 book Desiring Canada: CBC Contests, Hockey Violence and Other Stately Pleasures, authors Patricia Cormack and James F. Cosgrave write that "While citizens are certainly shaped by the ways in which pleasures are restricted by law, we must not overlook that modern states also use pleasures in order to advance their own interests, shape their citizens and build nationhood."
"Nationalism," they continue, "is the most obvious state-promoted pleasure."
(Of Mattel's Mountie Barbie, Ms. Cormack and Mr. Cosgrave note that other dolls in the collection were represented through notions of culture. Canada's doll, however, was represented by a depiction of police. "Presumably, for Mattel this was the clearest and most obvious signifier of Canadianness – seemingly, we are a state-loving people," they wrote.)
It's long been time to stop romanticizing the RCMP. The imaginary lifestyle-brand version of the Mountie is not the same as the Mountie in real life. By continuing to categorize the Mountie as charming Canadian iconography, we play down the harm that can be done by police in this country.
That's a lot to overlook for the sake of a cheese knife.