Alberta's top RCMP officer Marianne Ryan retires after 35-year career

Marianne Ryan, the RCMP's commanding officer in Alberta, is retiring, ending a career that spanned 35 years, three provinces and included many firsts.

Ryan was the first woman and first openly gay commanding officer in Alberta

Marianne Ryan is retiring as RCMP deputy commissioner in Alberta after a career that spanned 35 years and three provinces. (CBC)

As Marianne Ryan looked out on a crowd of 300 officers gathered at RCMP headquarters in Edmonton to mark her last day as the top officer in the province, she made an appeal.

"The greatest honour that you could pay me going forward is to be kind and respectful to each other," she said Friday.

With that, she retired and said goodbye to a career that spanned 35 years, three provinces, and included many firsts.

In 2013, she was the first woman and openly gay person to take on the role of commanding officer for the RCMP in Alberta. It was a position she never dreamed of reaching, and it all began with a failed vision test.

New recruit

Ryan grew up in southern Ontario and thought she was destined to leave the family farm for business school, but her plan unravelled after completing an arts degree at Western University in London, Ont. She wasn't passionate about her career choice and had no idea of what she wanted to do instead.

At age 22, Ryan's first posting was in Thompson, Man. (Submitted/RCMP)

She didn't really consider policing until a family friend who worked for the Ontario Provincial Police told her to give it a shot. It was the early 1980s, and the OPP was actively trying to recruit women.

"The only women in policing I saw was on TV," she says.

"But I thought OK, this is as good as anything else."

A career with the OPP was not in the cards for Ryan. She wears glasses and didn't pass the provincial force's vision test. But her eyesight was good enough to pass the RCMP's exam.

After graduating from the national police force's training program, the 22-year-old was sent to her first posting in northern Manitoba, where she says she spent time building ties with First Nations communities.

She describes the experience as somewhat isolating, but formative. It forced her to learn how to talk people, and confront the horrific aspects of her newly chosen career.

Grisly discovery

She will never forget the first time she came upon a man who had taken his own life.  

"I walked into the living room, took a deep breath and turned around. I never thought I would see anything like this."

It was the bloody aftermath of a suicide by a high-powered rifle.

During those initial moments, her mind went to controlling her reaction.

"As a female, I didn't want to appear weak. I didn't want to feel like I was emotionally overcome. You know you want to fit in."

But she was shaken. Still seared into her mind, is an image of the human tissue she saw on top of the water in the man's aquarium.

"To this day I can't disassociate an aquarium from that and that is PTSD, but we didn't know it at the time."

Ryan says she got through it with the help of her co-workers. The experience, she says, underlined how she should always be prepared for the worst.

Losing an officer

The worst came during the early hours on Jan. 17, 2015, when two RCMP officers were shot trying to arrest a suspect at a casino in St. Albert, Alta. One of those officers, Const. David Wynn, was shot in the head and died a few days later.

Ryan comforted Shelly MacInnis-Wynn after her husband, RCMP Const. David Wynn was killed in a shooting. (CBC)

At that point, Ryan had been the RCMP's commanding officer in Alberta for just over a year. 

As the slain officer's grieving widow, Shelly MacInnis-Wynn, trembled in front of a microphone, Ryan wrapped her arms around her until she was finished speaking to the media.

"You could see that her whole world is crumbling and what person would not want to hold her up and help her."

Gone now are the days when Ryan worried about showing too much emotion or feeling, but it wasn't a quick transition.  

For years she strived to act staunch and firm, even engaging in "rough talk" with fellow officers because she thought that would fit the typical RCMP mold.

But a decade or so into her career, it bothered her that she wasn't being genuine.   

"I couldn't carry it off without looking like an idiot."

A woman among men

Ryan rose through the ranks surrounded by male co-workers and says she never personally felt berated or disrespected. It's a stark contrast to the hundreds of women who have come forward saying they were harassed, bullied and in some cases sexually assaulted while working for the RCMP.  

Ryan frequently found herself surrounded by men, and believes she was never held back by her gender. (Submitted/RCMP)

Ryan is adamant that her gender didn't hinder her career, but instead opened more doors because the RCMP was looking for opportunities to help women advance.

"As long as we had the same skills and I got it because I was a woman, I was good with that," she says, adding that the challenge was proving herself.

"It's one thing to get it. It's another thing to carry it off and get the respect from the guys."

Ryan admits that she didn't fully understand the significance of being in the top woman on the job in Alberta until junior officers came up and told her how much it meant to them.

Raising the flag

What wasn't lost on her however, was the pivotal and very personal moment last year as she raised the pride flag at RCMP K Division in Alberta for the first time.

"If you were to tell me 10 years ago that I would do this, I wouldn't have believed it."

Ryan raised the pride flag at RCMP K Division in Edmonton for the first time in 2016. (CBC)

In the days after the ceremony, officers reached out telling her they were no longer hesitant to reveal their sexuality.

"That happened in front of me, where RCMP male members came out because they felt it was a safe environment now."

With her own partner watching on from the crowd, she finished her farewell to the RCMP on Friday by reflecting on how she had personally pushed for a more inclusive police force.

"I tried to make change or influence in the circle that I could and I couldn't be more happy as I walk out the door today. "

About the Author

Briar Stewart is a senior reporter with CBC News. For more than a decade, she has been covering stories for television, radio and online. She is based in Vancouver and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart