This Canada

The Mounties lose their man

Thomas Hopkins December 31 1979
This Canada

The Mounties lose their man

Thomas Hopkins December 31 1979

The Mounties lose their man

This Canada

Thomas Hopkins

The muddy, four-vehicle caravan crunches through the unpaved

streets of McBride in eastern B.C. It is coming from the white-sided RCMP barracks just off Main Street. Former RCMP corporal AI Thiel and his family are clearing out the last of their belongings before moving into a log farmhouse on the edge of town. The process is overseen by the silent presence of an RCMP staff sergeant from Prince George, 120 miles to the west. He waits in the detachment office next door until the house is as bare and forlorn as the golden willow in the yard. Thiel and his family are leaving because he refused to be transferred out of McBride. He was fired Oct. 26.

For some people in McBride the three pickups and a “Jimmy” rep-

resent a cortege for a heroic red-coated Mountie; for others it’s the inevitable result of bucking an unblinking system. The procession files by the pseudo-Tudor McBride Hotel and past CN rail yards which provided the town with a reason to live at the turn of the century. A farmer exhales a plume of condensed breath and tips an arm in greeting.

Later Allen Wiltsie, 30 years in McBride, leans across the counter of Hart Building Supplies and grumbles, “It’s foolishness to get rid of a man like that.” And in the spartan offices of The Robson Valley Courier, Pete (Horse Thief) Siebel brushes back his ponytail, hitches down his “Zed Ply” baseball hat and says, “AÍ Thiel was our first-ever town cop.”

Behind him, the tall mill -worker and sometime Courier reporter, Donn Reed, 41, is busily mounting a poster in the newspaper window. It’s a pastiche of button slogans:

“Support AÍ Thiel, too honest to be a Mountie...” and newspaper clippings from southern papers sporting headlines such as: MOUNTIE FIRING ANGERS VILLAGE, and MOVE OR GET OUT SAY TOP MOUNTIES.

The little town of McBride

(population, 800), tucked under the western wall of the Rockies, likes its cop. When Thiel, a 14-year veteran and head of the town’s three-man detachment for two years, got sacked, they got mad. Spearheaded by Reed, the town sped into action—a petition accumulated 260 names, town council wrote to the regional superintendent asking for a reprieve and buttons were sold on Main Street, reading: DEFEND DEMOCRACY. Along with the campaign came CBC news cameras, phone calls from Vancouver newspapers and radio interviews. In these cynical times, cop-loving, it seemed, was news. Along with embarrassment for the RCMP came head-scratching for the sleepy little town. Twelve-year resident and owner of the Main Street Esso station, Harley Bratton, looked up from a patched tire: “It just baffles me how the whole thing got so big.”

Three miles down the Yellowhead Highway from McBride is Donn Reed’s frame house. He lives there on an acre plot with his wife, Jean, and their four kids—kids he will tell you he delivered himself, as proud as if they were rosycheeked orchids. The cluttered house is stocked with the books the Reeds use to teach the two youngest rather than send them to school. It’s an eccentricity that goes barely noticed in the oddly polyglot community that boasts a Mennonite school, a Seventh Day Adventist school, two public schools and a shaggy floating population of home-teaching back-to-the-landers. Reed acts as Thiel’s chief defender and is resented by

some townspeople because of his emotional reports in the local paper. (“The Courier should be a newspaper, not a gossip sheet,” says McBride mayor and grocery-store owner Ken Jones. )

Reed says: “We think AÍ was railroaded. There were personality clashes with some of his constables because he worked long hours. Seems Mounties like a man who closes his door at night.” Reed paints a portrait of Super Cop who cleaned up chronic vandalism and window-breaking on Main Street by befriending the young troublemakers. Often Thiel’s methods were unorthodox. After one bout of vandalism, he tracked down the young offender and forced him to apologize personally to all the vandalized citizens. Not finished there, he found the woman at whose party the youth had gotten drunk and had her apologize to the victims.

Says Dan Hansler, owner of McBride Air Cooled Engines and the supplier of all the local motorcycles and snowmobiles: “He managed to get the respect of all the kids and I should know, most of them are my customers.” David Bond, principal of McBride’s Centennial Elementary School, says, “He was never a nine-to-five policeman. He was always there, even in the middle of the night. All you had to do was call him. In the school he was the first RCMP officer to get to the kids. He organized bicycle rodeos and talked about Mountie history. Kids would run to the RCMP barracks across the street if they thought they needed help. He took the view that if he could prevent the crime it was better than solving it.” Unorthodoxy is rare in rural police work. There is something of the travelling ministry in being a small-town cop—normality is the kingpin for survival. Thiel had been in nine postings in his 14 years. In each case he had to keep a professional distance from the community, live with loneliness and long hours. But for Thiel, sitting in denims and cowboy boots on his 160-acre farm the day after the move, that’s the way it should be. “A police officer is a professional, like a doctor or lawyer, 24 hours a day.” Thiel was born in Zurich, in Southwestern Ontario, of German stock. His father was a local cop and a policeman was all Thiel wanted to be. When he was told last March that he would be transferred south to Williams Lake in the Cariboo, he asked for a year’s extension because his two girls, Tanya, 9, and Tovi, 7, were in school. It was refused in a manner that caused him to suspect that the transfer was a punishment move. He appealed in writing and when that was dismissed without any reason being given, he refused to go. He was discharged despite the throaty protest of McBride.

But the firing was only the beginning. Just as in the defection of a priest from the church, the force was unforgiving, says Reed: “They nickel-and-dimed him to death.” Senior officers flown in from Prince George confiscated his uniforms and padlocked the common doorway between the family’s barracks home and the detachment office. Instead of allowing him to photocopy a Telex relating to his appeal they forced him to copy it out longhand, and senior officers insisted he count out a $200 petty cash allotment before witnesses to ensure it was all there. A cop with no small dose of pride, he requested that a $329 “defence fund” raised by people in McBride be given to the town’s young people. For a man whose career seems mortally wounded, Thiel’s control slipped only once in his freshly painted living room. “It’s almost,” he admits, eyes darting toward the ceiling, “destroyed any faith I had in the force.”

Thiel currently has high-powered Vancouver lawyer Thomas Braidwood petitioning the federal court of appeal to overturn the October discharge order so that he can renew his appeal against the transfer under new, more open procedures introduced in September. The procedures would allow him to appear in person before an RCMP tribunal and be represented by RCMP lawyers. The federal court hearing is expected next month. Fred Hardy, a Vancouver-based RCMP staff relations officer, cautions that there has been only one successful appeal of a discharge order in the past 30 years, and that the officer involved resigned shortly after winning his case. For its part, the RCMP insists Thiel’s transfer was routine and was not intended as punishment.

In the early evening, the mountains bracketing McBride are held in sharp relief by the low winter sun. The hydrants have been painted like small tin soldiers in red, blue and yellow. The wood facades and flat Klondike roofs of the town’s buildings glow warmly in the dying light. In the pub, hands wrap around Old Style beer bottles on tables covered with red terry cloth. “I hear the Mounties got a new joke,” says one logger. “They say Greenpeace is coming to town to start a ‘Save the Thiel’ campaign.” The table clucks over that and recalls the school programs Thiel started, like the bicycle rodeo.

High-school counsellor Dan Unrau drives a Mercedes Benz, not a pickup, which is a good indication of the distance he has gone from most of the people of McBride. But he is also a Thiel supporter, seeing the positive effects of the Thiel method on some of his problem kids.

“The RCMP brass have taken a beating lately,” he says, attempting to sum up the significance of McBride’s small rebellion. “If AÍ Thiel can be fired by them, the reputation of the entire operation is at stake in this town. That’s what the force should be afraid of, that’s what it can’t afford to lose.”