When he was only seven years old, Cpl. Dave Heaslip's father took him to visit a war buddy, a trip that would alter the course of his life.
"He was a neat sort of a guy — a great big guy," remembers Heaslip. "He was in the RCMP, in charge of a detachment."
The man gave Heaslip a forage cap, which Heaslip wore on the drive home, sitting in the backseat of his father's car.
When a lineup of cars started to build up behind them, Heaslip's father wondered what was going on.
"Of course he was always just doing the speed limit," says Heaslip. "He looked in the back seat and I had this hat on. He knew then they were doing that because there was a policeman sitting in the back."
His mother wanted him to be a dentist, but he knew from that moment that he wanted to be a Mountie. "I was like, 'Holy smokes! Instant respect,' " says Heaslip.
Heaslip says he kept his nose clean and was processed by the RCMP at 18 years old. At 19, he was in training.
"And I've enjoyed it ever since," he says.
A memorable career
After 45 years — and 120 days to be exact — he retired, just this past spring.
à "He loved what he did and he did it seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Heaslip's former supervisor, Sgt. Chris Van Imschoot, now with K Division Professional Standards.
Other than his stint in the Musical Ride in the 1970s and his most recent role as one of two livestock investigators in Alberta, all of his work has been in uniform as a front-line police officer.
"I thought it was such an interesting job because you never know what's going to come up," says Heaslip. "There were a lot of challenges over the years, and I always really liked getting my fingers into a good file and working on it."
He jokes about a time when he was up in St. Paul working a short stint in traffic. At a detachment meeting they were going over the number of tickets given out.
"The boss up there referred to it as a lack of production," says Heaslip.
He said there was one member that had only written five tickets within that last year.
"Everybody knew it was me and he said what's really surprising is those five tickets were written to the same person in the same vehicle. I put my hand up and said, 'Well, the guy really pissed me off.'"
He's also been in charge of detachments. One year when he was at Rocky Mountain House Detachment, there were three homicides.
"And here is Cst. Dave Heaslip doing three homicide investigations out there — and you did them on your lonesome then," says Heaslip. "By the way, I did get three convictions."
Carving out a niche
But the real highlight came towards the end of his career, about 12 years ago, when Heaslip became a livestock investigator, combining his passion for animal welfare and policing.
In this role, Heaslip could really be himself.
"He wears Wranglers, a button-up collared shirt, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat to work every day as his uniform," says Sgt. Leonard McCoshen, NCOI/C Edmonton Serious Crimes Unit. "When you look up cowboy in the dictionary and see a picture of a cowboy, that's him."
Heaslip was responsible for everything related to livestock — from stray animals to animal cruelty cases to international cases of livestock fraud, often working with partners like the Texas Rangers and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.
And as the second largest industry in the province, livestock is a big business in Alberta, with some high-profile investigations involving millions of dollars.
"In the RCMP, we always say, 'We get our man.' " says Heaslip. "When cattle are stolen, as a livestock investigator, we always like to think we get our cow."
In addition to his regular duties, he even developed an emergency livestock trailer program in the province to safely contain livestock in the event of a trailer rollover or accident. And he won a leadership award for his work and dedication from Alberta Farm Animal Care, a provincial organization looking out for animal welfare.
While he may have retired, he still has big plans with the RCMP. He'll be leading the Mounted Rider Program, which he helped formalize in Alberta in 2008.
As part of this program, he's represented the RCMP at the 2012 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and led the horse at the funeral for Cst. David Wynn alongside his counterpart, livestock investigator Cpl. Chris Reister.
He'll continue to ensure that members who perform duties on horseback are qualified riders and familiar with RCMP policy and protocol, as well as the tack, or equipment, being used. He'll also scrutinize the horses being used to ensure they're sound and dark in colour.
Heaslip started to make a name for himself as the go-to guy for livestock files when he worked at the Ponoka Detachment in Alberta, which was known as the cattle capital of Canada.
"I'm kind of a farm boy so I took an interest in that," says Heaslip. "And then anything that came in, people would ask me what to do and ask if I could take the file."
When the livestock investigator position opened up, he was a natural fit.
He continued to build a solid reputation as the cowboy cop, even mending several fractured relationships with partner agencies, says Van Imschoot.
"I received more feedback about Dave then all of my staff put together," says Van Imschoot. "People genuinely loved what Dave did."
McCoshen agrees, saying that Heaslip's greatest skill is his ability to deal with people.
"There are people that aren't caring for their animals for some reason – either because of finances or because times are tough," says McCoshen. "But he's able to go in and sit down with them and talk to them, make them his friends."
It speaks to Heaslip's own personal philosophy — while enforcement is necessary at times, it's a last resort, which is backed by Alberta's compliance principles.
"Not everybody has to be charged if you can see the person has learned something," says Heaslip. "Like everything else, you've got a decision to make that you can work with them to ensure that they don't do it again."
McCoshen adds that Heaslip is irreaplaceable.
"All the pillars of the organization, he envisioned and understood," he says. "It was just the man he was. He's not a fancy talking guy or anything like that. He just got it."
From the first day of his career to the last, Heaslip says there was no bigger thrill than catching a crook.
"On my last day of work, I wanted to get ahead and catch a crook, but for the most part, certainly, I've achieved a lot of things in the RCMP and I've worked with some great guys and gals over the years."
But like any cowboy with about a half dozen of his own horses, Heaslip looks forward to having more time to do what he loves most.
"I plan to go to the mountains as often as I can because I just love riding up in the foothills," says Heaslip.
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 3, 2015).