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March in downtown St. John's honours first female Mounties

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Just as they would have worn almost fifty years ago, some of the first female Mounties sported red blazers and black knee-length skirts for a march in St. John’s on Tuesday.

Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Troop 17 — the first class of women recruits on the national police force — the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador led a ceremonial march through a small part of downtown St. John’s on Tuesday afternoon.

Gail Courtney, one of the three Newfoundland and Labrador women to head to Regina and make up Troop 17, took in the event as it marched to the Lieutenant Governor’s official residence in St. John’s.

"To see all these members here and retired members celebrating us, and all women who have come behind us, it’s a tribute and it’s a very wonderful experience," she said.

Gail Courtney, a retired Staff Sergeant with the RCMP, wears her Mountie uniform as she poses for a photo in St. John's. (CTV News)

When the first call for women recruits went out in 1974, Courtney had a brother already working with the RCMP, so a career in policing was already on her mind.

"I was in an office type of career, and I wanted something that would offer to me adventure, travel, working outside,” she remembers now.

She worked inside the police force for 32 years, moving up the ranks to become a Staff Sergeant, while making some memories providing security detail for British royalty — among them, Princess Diana and her then-husband Prince Charles.

Then, in 1983, female police officers were given a purse to hold their gun and handcuffs. Courtney said some of those first few years had bumps in the road for the women recruits, though once the actual work of policing got underway, things were ironed out.

"The decision to accept women came very fast," she said. "They weren’t ready for us."

"When our uniforms came, we had a polyester blouse that was form fitting… we weren’t allowed to have pockets because it would protrude."

Female RCMP officers — including some of the original recruits — walked through St. John’s in a ceremonial march Tuesday to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Troop 17, the first all-women class of RCMP recruits. (CTV News)

Jennifer Ebert, an assistant commissioner and commanding officer of the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador, says she owes a lot of debt to those first women who entered the force in 1974.

"If you don’t see somebody doing something that you would like to do, it’s hard to aspire to do that," she said. "They broke that barrier, they broke that glass ceiling for people like myself."

Tuesday’s event is part of a bigger celebration and other events across the country marking the integration of women into the RCMP.

The change in 1974 came after the Royal Commission on the Status of Women recommended the RCMP open its ranks to women. By then, municipal forces in Toronto and Vancouver had already been accepting women as officers.

The first class of female recruits all travelled to Regina for training before being distributed to various branches across the country.

"There were 32 of us and 800 men at training," Courtney remembers. "It was my first time really being away from home."

Courtney said there was a great deal of media attention and a lot of nerves for that first class, but also excitement and pride at what they had already achieved.

"All we had to focus on was to blend in, to do our job," she said. "We didn’t go there thinking, we’re going to trailblazers, we’re going to pave the way. There was none of that."

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