Tuning Up in the Arctic

    The RCMP Band played in arenas, school gymnasiums, and community centres, as well as concert halls like this one in Dawson City built during the Yukon Gold Rush. Courtesy Drummond Hudson

    RCMP Band Tours

    The sun was still high at 8 p.m. on May 7, 1967, when the entire community of Cambridge Bay headed out to the hangar at the DEW Line site. People travelled by qamutiq and skidoo over the ice- and snow-covered road to hear the Mounties play.

    At 9 p.m., 42 men in red serge jackets with brass instruments took the stage built on the back of a flat bed truck and wooden pallets beside it. An audience of more than 500 sat on rows of wooden benches in front of the stage, waiting. The conductor lifted his baton, and an enormous sound filled the aircraft hangar. It was live music that had never been heard in the Arctic Islands before.

    Canada was celebrating its centennial from coast to coast to coast with a big band sound. Cambridge Bay was the fifth stop on the RCMP Band’s first Arctic tour.

    Nuinnaqtun interpreter, Joseph Otokiak, was 12 when the band played Cambridge Bay. He remembered when he arrived at the hangar, being asked to sit with other kids at the front. A few songs into the concert, Conductor Supt. Edwin Lydall invited young Otokiak to come up to conduct the band.

    “I remember the song they were playing was ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ by the Beatles. The conductor gave me a stick,” said Otokiak. “I’d had a chance to see the conductor do his stuff first, so then I kind of went along with the music. That was exciting,” he laughed. “I think the band knew what they were doing, and probably didn’t need the conductor.”

    The band’s singer, Cpl. Garth Hampson, kept a diary on the 1967 tour and wrote, “Ted Lydall got little Joseph Otokiak up in front of the band to conduct. He left the stand and the boy did very well on his own. People really enjoyed this, and he got a good ovation when the number finished.”

    After the 90-minute concert, the band posed for pictures with audience members. Then there was a reception at the DEW Line site. The party ended at 2 a.m. in full daylight, and many of the musicians went off on dogsled tours with the locals.

    Insp. W. Bramwell Smith (musical director from 1967 to 1975) stands centre between local RCMP constables and young audience members, 1973. Courtesy Garth Hampson

    The next morning, the RCMP Band boarded a Hercules military cargo plane, and took off for the next stop on the tour. Harold Pretty, the tuba, string bass, and bass guitar player, explained that the band used a Hercules because it could take off and land on less than perfect runways. Inside, the band members sat on webbed seating against the walls of the plane. The instruments and equipment were stowed down the middle between them. Pretty said it was an extremely noisy way to travel.

    A full-time national RCMP Band, based in Ottawa, was established in December 1958. Professional musicians were hired from across Canada, and the band began touring the country in 1959. The RCMP Band’s main role was public relations, and its members were considered musical ambassadors. Trombonist Jim Gayfer said the RCMP had its own staff arrangers who took popular tunes and arranged them for the band to play. The music was fun and energetic. During the concerts, band members encouraged the audience to sing and clap, and get them up dancing. Half their concerts were performed at schools and geared to the youth.

    “We played all the latest pop stuff that the kids would know,” said Drummond Hudson, who joined the band as a trombonist in 1959 and later became the band’s manager. “We wanted to show the other side of policemen — that we were approachable.”

    Hudson, Pretty, and other band members were hired as musicians, and then sent to ‘Depot,’ the RCMP Academy outside of Regina, for police training. Garth Hampson was the only one who was an RCMP officer before joining the band. Hampson was at the Vegreville, Alberta, detachment in 1964, before being transferred to Ottawa to be the band’s vocalist.

    By 1966, the band had wowed crowds in all major Canadian cities, and many small towns, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But it hadn’t played above the 60th parallel. For Canada’s Centennial, the RCMP wanted to introduce as many Canadians to the band’s music as possible. So, an Arctic tour was scheduled.

    “Music can open so many doors, and this was particularly so wherever the band went,” said Hampson. “All were treated to the very best music.”

    The band left Ottawa on May 1, 1967. It played three concerts in Fort Smith, two in Yellowknife, three in Whitehorse, and one in Inuvik before performing in Cambridge Bay. The band then gave two performances in Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay), and two more in Goose Bay, Labrador. The last concert, scheduled for Labrador City, was cancelled. When poor weather prevented the plane from landing, it carried on to Ottawa. In 10 days, the RCMP Band had travelled 8,125 kilometres (13,000 miles). Its first Arctic tour was a tremendous success.

    “Seeing people, especially children’s, facial reactions to hearing a trumpet played for the first time was wonderful. They’d never seen anything like that,” said Hampson.

    Travelling with a big band was expensive, though, and so the RCMP didn’t tour the Far North for another five years. In 1973, in honour of the mounted police force’s 100th anniversary, the RCMP Band planned an extensive Canadian tour. Months in advance of the concerts, Hudson flew to different Arctic communities to organize concert dates and times, performance locations, and sleeping accommodations. Sometimes the communities were so small; he arranged for the band to fly in, perform, then fly out after­wards to a town that had a hotel.

    The Bison Band with singer Kerry-Anne Kutz played Pond Inlet in 1985. Program courtesy Philippa Ootoowak

    In 1977, a 15-piece show band was formed, and later the nine-piece Bison Band was created. These bands used two twin otter airplanes: one to carry the band members, and the other to carry the instruments. This simplified the logistics of northern travel. These planes could more easily get into remote, smaller communities, and accommodations for fewer band members were easier to organize.

    Kerry-Anne Kutz was hired as the Bison Band’s vocalist in December 1984. She was the first woman in an RCMP band. She loved the Arctic tours and said, “The beauty of the communities, the natural beauty, and the experience itself was unforgettable.”

    “Our job was to link the very important work of the people on the detachment to the community to enhance that relationship,” said Kutz.

    “It was also a way to thank the people in the communities for their support.”

    After 1973, an RCMP band toured different Arctic communities every four years — 1977, 1981, 1985, 1989, and 1993. In December 1993, the federal government decided the RCMP bands were too expensive. The millions of dollars spent on travelling across the country and around the world would go instead to “maintaining core police functions.”

    Despite a petition with 30,000 supporters’ signatures, the government tuned out, and cut the bands.

    The RCMP musicians were stunned by the news, and 25 years later are nostalgic. “I really enjoyed the performing. I still miss that,” said trombonist Jim Gayfer. “When I get together with guys from the band—25 years later—we’re still talking about it.”

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    Season Osborne has a passion for Arctic history and is the author of In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912. She lives and writes in Ottawa, Ontario.