From start to finish, Bev Busson blazed the way for women

Bev Busson was a newly minted Dartmouth, NS teacher on May 23, 1974, driving to her summer job working with special needs kids, when she heard on the radio that the RCMP was going to accept applications from women.

She happened to be driving by the local detachment and picked up an application. "It was like destiny pulling me in another direction," she says.

In less than four months, the then 23-year-old Bev MacDonald was a sworn police officer in Regina for training with 31 other women who together formed Troop 17, the first RCMP female officers.

Little did she know three decades later, after an "adventure and adrenaline" filled career, she would become the first female commissioner of the national police force in late 2006.

With limited career choices for women in the early 1970s, Busson chose teaching because she knew she wanted to make a difference in people's lives. "The RCMP was that but times 10 for me," she explains.

The troop created a bit of a media storm at the RCMP Academy, "Depot" Division. "We just wanted to be treated like everyone else and then yet another news crew would suddenly descend on us," she laughs. "We got really close, really quickly."

So close that most of the troop has reunited every five years for the last 40. "They are all great women who've all broken barriers and had such varied and interesting careers," Busson says.

Fresh out of Depot, Busson was posted to Salmon Arm, B.C., a small town in the southern interior on Shuswap Lake – the same area where she and her husband have now chosen to retire.

There were some challenges at first, including finding someplace to live. The new male members always stayed at Gabe's Bunkhouse which, she laughs, really wasn't appropriate. And she became "a bit of a tourist attraction" for the first few weeks because everyone wanted to see the female Mountie.

The welcome, however, was warm and it was "full-on adventure" from Day 1. "I'm not sure if (the detachment commander) was a believer or not but there was no special treatment," she says recalling that, like all the men, she got her fair share of overnight shifts, alone on duty with the closest back up in the next detachment area, or asleep at home.

It was 13 years before Busson would get her first promotion, to corporal. With a chuckle she describes herself as a "slow starter," but it was during this period that she racked up the investigative experience that became the foundation of the rest of her career. She made her mark in criminal investigations starting with a transfer to a drug unit after only two years of service in general duty policing. From there it was on to major crimes investigating fraud, drug and serious crimes including sexual assaults and homicides.

By 1990, she'd earned a law degree and moved to the administrative side of the RCMP as an internal affairs prosecutor. Missing the excitement of criminal investigations, two years later she was the first woman commissioned as an inspector and went back to the operations side of the house.

"I was so fortunate to have some wonderful bosses who had no issues with gender," she says when asked about her career trajectory. "They just wanted you to work hard and I was happy to do that."

Over the course of her career, there were nine physical transfers between different posts in Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Ottawa, Ont. She ultimately married a fellow Mountie, a widower with two small children whom she adopted. Her daughter is now an RCMP officer in British Columbia.

"I remind my daughter all the time that everyday is an opportunity to make a difference in someone's life and that success should be measured by your contributions and how others feel about your leadership, not your rank," Busson explains.

Did you know?

Bev Busson climbed the ranks of the RCMP, chalking up many 'firsts' throughout her career. Some of these achievements include:

  • First woman to be commissioned, becoming an inspector in 1992
  • First woman to be named a criminal operations officer, essentially the No.2 officer in a division ("F" Division, Saskatchewan) in 1997
  • First woman to be promoted to the rank of assistant commissioner and to become a divisional commanding officer ("F" Division) in 1998
  • First woman to be named deputy commissioner of a region (Pacific Region) in 2001
  • First woman to lead the RCMP, becoming the 21st commissioner in December 2006

As the "E" Division (B.C.) Commanding Officer starting in 2000, she oversaw some of the RCMP's most infamous cases, including the latter stages of the investigation into the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, and that of mass murderer Robert "Willie" Pickton who was charged with 26 counts of first-degree murder and convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

In 2006 she was planning her retirement when she was approached to take over as Commissioner at a very challenging time in the organization's history. She agreed to take the position on an interim basis while another replacement was found.

"It was such a privilege and an honour," she says with humility. Looking back on her career, her best memories are of the great people she worked with and the "true camaraderie and mutual trust – those are the things that matter at the end of the day."

Asked what she's most proud of, she says it was that the people of the RCMP – police officers and civilians alike – accepted her leadership during a period when the Force was facing a lot of pressure, second-guessing and criticism.

Busson offers up a favourite quote – one attributed to several people, from Theodore Roosevelt to leadership guru John C. Maxwell – as her approach to leadership. "Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

Simple words from a universally respected leader who, along with all the women of Troop 17, blazed the way for thousands of women in the RCMP.

Read the previous In Focus, Female First and Meet Troop 17 features

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