Travel: Training with the Mounties and discovering a gangsters hideout
In his second features about one ofÂ Canada's lesser known provinces, travel writer Alan Wooding spends time with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at their headquarters in Regina and discovers the hiding place of one of America's most notorious criminals.
"Make sure you keep your googles and ear defenders on when the range goes live," said our firearms trainer as we pointed our Smith & Wesson 5906 pistols at a row of body-sized paper targets.
The 100 metre indoor firing range was just a small part of a challenging Royal Canadian Mounted Police boot camp experience that I undertook at the national headquarters in Saskatchewan province's capital city, Regina.
It's no real surprise that the Mounties are Canada's most recognisable institution. Originally called the North West Mounted Police and founded in 1873 to patrol the vast Northern Territories of what is the world's second largest country, they were reformed as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920 and today their bright scarlet tunics and musical ride display team have give them iconic status.
A large purpose-built Heritage Centre has been erected on the doorstep of Regina's Fort Dufferin Academy and it tells the story of the Mounties from its inception, the building annually welcoming thousands of visitors from all over the world.
However Hollywood's image of RCMP members riding horses and paddling Canadian birchbark canoes is a far cry from reality, for today the organisation is so advanced that it helps train police forces from around the globe while retaining close links with its military past.
The film 'Rose Marie' was originally released in 1936 in black and white starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald and I still remember going to see the updated 1954 MGM musical featuring Howard Keel with my parents.
I also remember being smitten by the images of Canada's heroic police force… but Sergeant Pharanae Jacques-Croisetiere and Corporal Sean Chiddenton soon quashed any ideas that the film was for real as we went through a gruelling spell of boot camp-style training.
Arriving at the Academy late on a Monday afternoon and accompanied by three fellow British journalists, we were given a pre-boot camp tour of what is known as 'Depot' Division by the fort's newest Cadets.
What followed was an early 5pm dinner in the enormous dining hall while we were then shown to our quarters and told to be up again by 5.30am the next morning, ready to march to the Parade Square to witness the raising of the Canadian flag.
And what followed was a day of intense training which included learning how to march in a unified order in readiness for the Sergeant Major Parade which was due to take place on the square later in the day. In fact we were expected to march along with the Academy's newest recruits while being watched by an audience… and it was all fine until the band suddenly struck up the Indiana Jones film theme, much to everyone's amusement!
Our group had to appoint a 'Right Marker' – another name for a leader – and poor Jodi Holliday immediately got our vote. Our popular Tourism Saskatchewan guide had hinted that she had gained experience with a marching band when she was younger and, as expected, she took to it like a duck to water. Despite our obvious and unwarranted protests, she professionally called us to attention under the watchful eye of an over-strict female RSM.
Circuit training in the Fitness and Lifestyle Unit was followed by a quick shower and a brief insight into Applied Police Sciences before our firearms session. And that was immediately followed by a driving lesson in a mocked-up Ford Crown Victoria (the same vehicle that the Mounties use) before even more firearms practice in the RCMP's multi-million dollar simulator.
With everyone told to march everywhere on site with a 'buddy', it was common to see whole squads of Cadets running at the double as they raced between different buildings to attend lessons on time.
However after a day of various activities, we were presented with 'passing out' certificates by the RCMP's Assistant Commissioner Louise LeFrance, who is also the commanding officer of Depot Division.
"I first came to the Regina Academy as a raw recruit some 29 years ago," she said as we assembled in the academy's beautiful old wooden chapel, adding that she never ever expected to return or to be in charge.
The chapel, with its impressive stained glass windows, is said to be one of the oldest buildings in the whole of Regina, despite half of it having been destroyed by fire many years ago.
"I've been back here for four years now and I really love the job," said Mrs LeFrance. "We have around 1,000 recruits pass through the Academy ever year… but it's never ever a foregone conclusion that they will all become Mounties."
At the time we were sitting together to watch the Sunset Retreat Ceremony in which a division of newly-qualified men and women displayed their marching prowess watched by hundreds of onlookers as the Canadian flag was ceremoniously lowered and neatly folded to the sound of a lone bugle.
That night we checked into the Radisson Plaza Hotel Saskatchewan which is Regina's premier hotel. It has 224 beautifully appointed rooms, including 27 regal suites and, as usual, there is a health club with all the facilities although we hardly had time to enjoy them as we had another full evening programme to enjoy first!
Unlike some other cities in Saskatchewan province, Regina – which was named after Queen Victoria (Victoria Regina) – rises from a treeless flat plain. Thanks to a small spring in Wascana Creek, a dam created a decorative central feature lake which is close to the impressive government building (sadly that was covered in scaffolding) and the central business district.
However years later, the lake turned out not to be deep enough so it had to be completely drained and manually dug out to the more reasonable depth that it is today.
Another quirky addition to the city was the construction of the province's longest bridge… but at 840 feet, Albert Street Bridge now span what is probably Saskatchewan's shortest stretch of water!
Back in June 1912, a terrible cyclone killed 28 people and destroyed much of the city and it is still easily the worst tornado that Canada has ever witnessed. Meanwhile in the 1930s, a riot brought further media attention to the Regina area in the midst of a drought and the great depression.
Strangely if a township reaches 5,000 inhabitants in Canada, it officially becomes a city… but even if it then drops below that figure, it is allowed to retain its city status. Thank goodness it doesn't apply here in the UK as half our villages would be claiming to be cities!
With the mosquitos and flies that we encountered further to the north now a distant memory – apart from those red blotches which were still visible on some of our arms and legs! – prior to arriving in Regina we called in at the town of Moose Jaw to see its infamous tunnels which were once the hiding place of America's most notorious gangster, Al 'Scarface' Capone.
Capone was listed in the US as 'Public Enemy Number One' for his evil deeds in and around Chicago. However as a way of escaping from the law following a list of charges relating to murder, supplying alcohol, drugs, prostitution and tax evasion, he crossed the border and headed to Moose Jaw where he lived a secretive life, protected by a group of ruthless gangsters who were happy to gun down anyone who stood in their way.
'Big Al' as he was known, would hide away from the law in the notorious Canadian town during the USA's prohibition period and today the tunnels under the main street have been opened up to give visitors the chance to get a flavour of those bad ol' days thanks to a team of actors.
Like parts of Chicago in the 1920s, Moose Jaw's River Street was known for its sleazy bars, brothels and protection rackets, all of which were run by Capone and his gang. And there are two sets of tunnels, one of which hid away hundreds of Chinese immigrants to Canada who lived in intolerable conditions as they tried to realise their dream – the other is centred around Miss Fanny's Bar.
Miss Fanny, who was played by a great local actress, took us deep underground through a maze of tunnels to reach the bar manned by Gus, Capone's right hand man.
Gus is played to start with by an automaton robot who relays the Capone story in true gangster style. But as we pass through various rooms, the role of Gus is then taken on by a actor. It's all very amusing and is certainly played for laughs. Doors are flung open while a hail of bullets is likely to bring down anyone stupid enough to stand in an open passageway.
Sadly the tunnel experience is over all too quickly but it leaves you with a lasting impression of the period.
Our final night on Canadian soil took us to The Bushwakker, a famous Regina watering hole that brews all its own beer. We were introduced to current manager Grant, a good friend of Tourism Saskatchewan's Shane Owen, who took us on a tour of what was once a huge Chinese laundry building.
Using only local produce and grain, his team produces millions of gallons of ale each year with titles like MacGregor's Wee Heavy and Honey Thistle Wit to Cheryl's Blonde, Dungarvon Irish Red and Stubblejumper Pils.
There is also a huge call for Bushwakker's speciality products and especially their Blackberry Mead and Missiletow Ale at Christmas-time when there are apparently queues going right around the block.
And it's not just alcohol that The Bushwakker is famous for as its huge menu features just about every kind of 'pub grub' that you can think of.
Like the rest of Canada, Saskatchewan is a vibrant combination of peoples and cultures and nowhere is this diversity better reflected than in the range of flavours and styles that come together to define the provinces cuisine.
Native Indian tribes such as Cree and Sioux are now known as First Nation members and their traditional foods include a variety of dishes made from bison (buffalo). This healthy, low-fat meat is certainly increasing in popularity while a fried flatbread called bannock is commonly served at 'powwows' and other celebrations. Meanwhile native fruits including Saskatoon berries, chokecherries and blueberries also find their way into many dishes.
The first wave of European settles to Canada came in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many arriving from the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and Scandinavia and, to this day, family gatherings and restaurant menus feature hearty traditional dishes that reflect these heritages: sausage, perogies (also known by many variations including pieroshki), cabbage rolls, roasted meats and potatoes.
While Chinese-Canadian restaurants have been a staple of small towns and bigger cities for decades, the late 1970s saw a huge influx of new Canadians, the displaced Vietnamese boat people. Many of these families established restaurants and, as a result, Saskatchewan is blessed with an amazing array of Vietnamese dishes. And within the last ten years, a general increase in the popularity of Asian cuisine has led to a new wave of Japanese, Thai and Korean restaurants.
Saskatchewan’s doors remain open to new Canadians from all over the world while restaurants featuring the flavours of Italy, India, Mexico, Africa, France, Afghanistan and others allow Saskatchewanians and visitors to savour the flavours of the world.
Saskatchewan is a Canadian province that seldom gets a mention in Britain and it's certainly not on many people's radar but, believe me, if my seven days there were anything to go by, then there's still so much more waiting to be discovered.
Tunnels of Moose Jaw
18 Main St N, Moose Jaw, SK S6H 3J6, Canada
Phone: +1 306-693-5261
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Heritage Centre
RCMP 'Depot' Division
Radisson Plaza Hotel Saskatchewan
2125 Victoria Aveue, Regina, SKS4P 0S3
Phone: +1 306-522-7691
Many thanks to Tourism Saskatchewan's Media Relations Consultants Shane Owen and Jodi Holliday for making my Canadian experience so enjoyable. Thanks also to Nim Singh, Media & Public Relations Manager of the Canadian Tourist Commission – www.keepexploring.ca or for information [email protected] – for arranging the trip. And finally to my fellow travellers, Finnbarr Webster, Jack Palfrey, Stuart Foster and Octavia Pollock … it's certainly a trip none of us will ever forget.
For Saskatchewan Province details, contact Tourism Saskatchewan, 189-1621 Albert Street, Regina, SK S4P 2S5 of see www.tourismsask.com