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History Today, Feb, 2000, by R.C. Macleod

R.C. Macleod traces the strange story of the force that began by policing the Klondlike gold rush and ended by spying on separatists and `subversives'.

CANADA ACQUIRED THE POLICE FORCE that is one of its most recognisable symbols almost by accident. When the government of Sir John A. Macdonald passed legislation in 1873 allowing for the creation of a police force in the North West Territories, it was intended to meet the immediate needs of the region for a decade or two and then disappear. Instead, the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) developed into such a popular western institution that Ottawa found it impossible to phase it out long after the frontier conditions it was designed to cope with had ceased to exist. So the NWMP quite unexpectedly emerged as a national police force in 1919 as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). By the middle of the century the RCMP, in addition to its national responsibilities, was the provincial police force in all provinces except Ontario and Quebec, and acted as a contracted municipal police in many towns and cities. The only significant check to the growth of the `Mounties' came in 1984 when responsibility for national security was transferred to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.

A few years after its creation in 1867, the new Dominion of Canada acquired a vast empire in the northwestern interior that has for two centuries belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company. For a country of four million people, maintaining control of a territory the size of Europe promised to be a heroic. It was clear to prime minister Macdonald that in could not be done in the American manner of letting government follow settlement. That process, observed by Canadians with critical attention, had produced a lengthy series of wars with the native Plains Indians. Macdonald was acutely conscious that in 1869 alone these conflicts cost the U.S. government about $20 million, one million more than Canada's total budget for that year. Cold financial calculations were powerfully reinforced by political values. Canadians believed fervently in their moral superiority to Americans. Yankees might be prepared to establish title to their west by casual slaughter, but Canadians, as befitted representatives of Queen Victoria's enlightened empire, could surely find a better way. The English Canadian political mentality, founded on a rejection of American revolutionary ideals, abhorred an administrative vacuum and instinctively feared anarchy.

There would be no Wild West in Canada and the NWMP would be the principal instrument for preventing it. Macdonald modelled his police force loosely on the Royal Irish Constabulary as well as on some rather vague notions he had about how British police forces operated in India. The NWMP were to be well-armed and organised along military lines with commissioned and non-commissioned ranks and armed with legal, as well as penal, powers. Doubling as magistrates, NWMP officers tried over eighty per cent of criminal cases in the Territories before 1885.

Under Canada's constitution, the British North America Act, enforcement of the criminal law was a provincial responsibility. A Federal police force could only operate in Federal territories or at the invitation of a provincial government. Within a year or two, things had settled down in the new province of Manitoba, after unrest by local settlers, but appeared to be heating up farther west. Reports commissioned by Ottawa on the region between Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains painted a picture of American whisky traders operating unchecked in Canadian territory. In May 1873 Parliament passed the necessary legislation and the government set about organising the new police force, a task given greater urgency in July by reports of an armed confrontation between whites and Indians in the Cypress Hills.

Until 1914, Canada had only a tiny permanent military force, known as the Militia, which meant that there was a large supply of talented young men with military inclinations who chose to serve with the mounted police because they offered the prospect of action and adventure. Members of the Militia were a self-selected group who volunteered for the defence of their country at a time when the only possible external enemy was the United States. They went west with a powerful sense of mission involving a determination to show the world that Canadians could manage their continental empire better than the Americans.

This was very much an English-Canadian point of view. Politics and patronage always required the presence of at least a token number of French-Canadians from the beginning, but the idea of the NWMP as the instruments of a northern `Manifest Destiny' did not have the emotional resonance in Quebec that it did in the English-speaking parts of Canada. This did not matter much at first, since the vast majority of settlers who came to the prairies either spoke English or assimilated rapidly into English-speaking society.

The advent of official bilingualism in the 1960s made it necessary for the first time to attract large numbers of recruits from Quebec and fit them into an organisation that might send them to the Yukon or a small town in Alberta. The RCMP has devoted a great deal of time and effort since then to improving its image among French Canadians, but the problem has never been fully solved because the police are not woven into the Quebec sense of identity as they are for most English Canadians.

In June 1874 three hundred mounted policemen, organised along the lines of a cavalry regiment into six troops of fifty, set off on a 1,200 kilometre overland trek to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Encumbered with several artillery pieces and a long baggage train that included such items as a portable sawmill, the trip turned into an epic of endurance. Ottawa's instructions that they were to go close to the border took the police through the most arid and least travelled part of the North West Territories. The horses suffered so severely that a group of the weakest had to be detached and sent north along a well-established fur trade route to Fort Edmonton. The rest managed to reach their destination with just enough time in hand to build winter quarters, named Fort Macleod after Assistant Commissioner James E Macleod.

What might easily have been a disaster quickly became a kind of founding myth for the new organisation. The great `March West' was portrayed as a struggle against adversity to accomplish the noble purpose of delivering the native population from the demoralising and destructive grasp of American whiskey traders. This transformation was in no small part due to the fact that a reporter and artist employed by the Canadian Illustrated News, Henri Julien, accompanied the police on their journey. The dramatic images he created strongly reinforced the sense of mission that most Canadians attached to the Mounted Police. The experience seems to have convinced those in charge of the police of the value of favourable publicity. At any rate, careful cultivation of the press became a permanent feature of police management, a preoccupation that culminated in a recent contract with the Walt Disney organisation to manage the corporate image of the RCMP.

The American whiskey traders operating north of the border quickly retreated on the arrival of the police. Rigorous enforcement of the prohibition laws dried the flow of liquor to a relative trickle. The result was a decade that might be called the golden age of the NWMP. Delays in building the Canadian Pacific Railway meant that the expected flood of settlers did not materialise. The non-native population of the North West Territories grew slowly, reaching approximate parity with the numbers of natives by the early 1880s. The police strategy of carefully explaining the new legal system to the indigenous population worked extraordinarily well. A recent study has shown that the crime rate for natives in the period before 1885 was only twenty per cent of that for the white population. The police were key players in the successful negotiations leading to the signing of treaties with the Cree and Blackfoot Indian peoples. By far the most significant test of the relationship between police and Indians came in 1885 when a separatist local settler leader, Louis Riel, declared a provisional government and took up arms against the Canadian authorities. In spite of Riel's efforts, only a handful of Cree warriors joined the revolt.

The suppression of the rebellion in 1885 along with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway brought a surge of settlement to the prairies. The NWMP, whose numbers had expanded to a thousand men in 1884, found plenty to do, although more of their time was spent providing advice and assistance than investigating crimes. The sense of security on the prairies led the opposition Liberal party to raise questions about the continued existence of the NWMP. Macdonald had promised that the police would disappear once the frontier stage had passed. With the defeat of the rebels in 1885, had that point not been reached? How could the government justify providing a police force for the North West Territories when the people of Ontario, British Columbia and the other provinces had to provide their own? By the 1890s reducing the size of the NWMP had become Liberal policy.

As long as Macdonald was alive he had no difficulty fending off political attacks on his creation. After his death in 1891, however, it became apparent that his successors lacked the will and ability to continue the fight. In the dying years of the Conservative administration from 1891 to 1896, the Mounted Police were cut back from a thousand to about 750 men. Most supporters of the new Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier expected that the Mounted Police would be quickly phased out. But Liberal political organisers made it clear that such a move would lose the party seats in future elections. The Territories had only a handful of seats in the 1890s, but that number would rapidly increase with the thousands of settlers who were beginning to flood into the region. Alienating the fastest-growing part of the country was not good long-term political strategy and the Liberals were not going to make such an elementary mistake. The sudden emergence of a new and highly publicised role for the Mounted Police just as the new government was taking office deflected public attention from the change in policy.

A major gold discovery in the creeks draining into the Yukon River in 1894 led to the huge Klondike gold rush of 1896-97. Thousands of miners from all over the world poured into an area with an extreme climate, no roads and a complete absence of government. The Mounted Police were the only practical instrument on hand to establish control and maintain order. Inspector Charles Constantine took a small party of police into the territory in 1895. By 1897 there were about a hundred members of the force on the ground, rising to 250 at the height of the rush in 1898. Under the leadership of one of their most colourful and competent officers, Superintendent Sam Steele, the police slipped easily into the role they had played twenty years earlier on the prairies. In addition to apprehending criminals, the NWMP carried the mail, collected customs, recorded mining claims and generally performed whatever government services seemed necessary. Steele freely admitted that if no existing laws could be found to deal with such urgent situations as the hundreds of ramshackle boats attempting to run the White Horse Rapids, he made up his own regulations on the spot. Observers marvelled at the contrast between wide-open Skagway, Alaska, run by a gang of extortionists led by the notorious Soapy Smith, and Dawson City where the bars and dance halls obediently closed down on Sundays. The miners apparently found this rigorous regime tolerable enough; when Steele left in the fall of 1899 to fight in the South African War, they gave him a bag of gold dust!

The Klondike rush had exhausted itself by the turn of the century, and the numbers of police needed in the Yukon declined correspondingly. Further south, in the original home of the Mounted Police, a movement for provincial autonomy was gathering momentum. When the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were brought into existence in 1905, it was generally assumed that the police -- (now the Royal North West Mounted Police [RNWMP] in recognition of the fact that many members of the force had served in the South African War) -- would cease to exist or perhaps withdraw to the far northern territories still under Federal control. The new provinces, like the older ones, would provide their own police if they thought them necessary. Complex and secret negotiations produced an unexpected result. The deal that was struck provided that Alberta and Saskatchewan would, in effect, rent the services of a certain number of RNWMP for use as provincial police.

This unorthodox but creative plan suited all parties until the First World War disrupted it. The war brought new duties for the Mounted Police in the form of security and intelligence operations directed at enemy aliens, radical labour unions, and, particularly after the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, left-wing political groups. By the end of the war the RNWMP were a major component in Canada's rather ramshackle intelligence organisation with responsibility for all of the country west of Ontario.

Meanwhile the atmosphere of moral fervour generated by the war helped prohibitionists convince all the provinces except Quebec to ban the sale of liquor. Between 1873 and 1891 prohibition had existed in the North West Territories and the experience of attempting to enforce abstinence had been difficult for the police. By the time the experiment ended, most senior officers were convinced that it had been both futile and destructive of trust between the force and the public. The announcement that the two provinces would outlaw the sale of liquor led the RNWMP to exercise the option both parties had to cancel contracts for provincial policing in Alberta and Saskatchewan on a year's notice. The official reason given was manpower shortages. This abandonment of their criminal policing roots left the future of the Mounted Police very much in question. The Federal cabinet debated integrating the police into the army, maintaining it as a small frontier force in the far north or disbanding it. In the end it was the great wave of labour unrest that swept the country in 1919, with strikes in most cities, that saved the Mounties. The most serious of the strikes took place in Winnipeg, where the city police themselves joined the strikers. The RNWMP were called in, and, after a major riot in which several people were killed by police bullets, order was restored.

The perceived necessity to have a national police force that could be called upon to back up local authority when order was threatened brought about a new government plan for the police. In 1919 the RNWMP merged with another, much smaller, force, the Dominion Police, to form the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The primary mandate of the new organisation was to keep watch on potentially subversive labour and political organisations and to act as a mobile reserve in case local police forces could not cope. As it happened the Winnipeg general strike was the high point of radical protest. By the early 1920s the conservative craft unions affiliated to the American Federation of Labor had regained their dominance and had decisively defeated the militants of the One Big Union. Through the 1920s the RCMP dutifully kept track of unions, the Communist Party of Canada and a large number of ephemeral socialist parties. The only political resistance to the new national police force came, not surprisingly, from the tiny Labour contingent in Canada's House of Commons, led by J.S. Woodsworth.

Woodsworth moved resolutions in 1922 and 1923 calling on the government to return the Mounted Police to their original role on the frontier. Neither vote attracted significant support and the debates indicated that most legislators thought that a national anti-subversive force was a good thing. By the time these votes were held it was already clear that the level of radical labour and political activity had declined to the point that keeping track of it would not occupy more than a small fraction of the RGMP's time. This was a serious threat to the continued existence of the force but it did not take long to find new things for it to do. Most of the new work was administrative. The Canadian state was expanding rapidly. Most of the new responsibilities of government were regulatory, requiring a large numbers of routine investigations. This was a niche that the RCMP settled into quickly and comfortably in the 1920s. Government departments and agencies that had employed private detective agencies like Pinkerton's found it cheaper and more convenient to use the Mounted Police.

Under financial pressure during the Great Depression, the Federal government offered a Saskatchewan-style `rent the Mounties' deal to all provinces. The poorer ones, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island agreed immediately. The three largest and wealthiest, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, refused. Newfoundland acquired the services of the RCMP when it joined Canada in 1949, and British Columbia finally gave up its provincial police in 1956. The policing contracts with the provinces have been one of the smoothest-functioning elements of Canadian federalism. For almost a century the Mounted Police, in their primary role as criminal police, have acted under a succession of temporary contracts. They are paid and administered by the Federal government but are subject to the direction of the provincial Attorney-Genera] for legal purposes.

The return to provincial policing in 1932 was perhaps the most important of a series of changes to the RGMP that took place under the vigorous leadership of Commissioner James MacBrien, who led the police from 1931 to 1938. MacBrien brought a new professionalism to the RCMP and set the direction the force would follow for the rest of the century. The new commissioner demanded, and got, control over recruiting to eliminate the political patronage that had always existed. Training was improved and the RGMP began to send promising officers to universities. In 1937 an aviation section was established and a national crime laboratory opened. The following year the RCMP established the Canadian Police College to provide specialised training for all police forces in Canada.

The discovery of a large spy ring operating out of the Soviet embassy in Ottawa after the defection of a Russian code clerk named Igor Gouzenko in 1945 ensured that providing security checks for government employees would be the biggest growth area for the RCMP in the decades after the Second WorldWar. In 1945 the Intelligence Section was a small adjunct of the Criminal Investigation Branch, consisting of two inspectors and a handful of men. In 1947 it separated from the CIB and was reorganised as Special Branch. Continued growth led to its renaming as the Directorate of Security and Intelligence in 1956. By the 1970s the once again renamed Security Service employed well over a thousand policemen. The combination of rapid growth, Cold War tensions and increased Quebec separatism created unprecedented difficulties for the RGMP. There were a number of embarrassing and highly publicised incidents in which it was clear that the Security Service lacked the sophistication to distinguish between subversion and legitimate dissent.

After the murder of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and the kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner James Gross by Quebec separatists in 1970, the Security Service stepped up its efforts in that province. The most damaging Mountie blunder came in 1972 when several Mounties broke into the offices of a separatist news agency and made off with the organisation's files. No search warrants had been obtained and the operation was apparently not authorised by senior police officials. The Security Service, which had historically maintained close ties with the FBI, seems to have taken its cue from current practices in the United States. This was the era of Watergate: the golden age of `dirty tricks' and `deniability'. The Quebec misadventures in the 1970s led to a major investigation, the McDonald Commission, which demanded a civilian agency to handle such sensitive security work. In 1984 the RGMP finally relinquished its operations in this area to the new Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.

Known for `always getting their men', the Mounties resisted pressures to recruit women long after most other major police forces in the country. In 1974 they gave in and the first female recruits began basic training. Similarly, in recent years, the RCMP has attempted to recruit from the rapidly growing visible minority communities in the country. It was in the 1970s, too, that horses were finally phased out of the basic training curriculum and the last dog team patrol took place in the far north.

In the summer of 1999, a group that included serving and retired policemen as well as some civilians re-enacted the 1874 `March West' on the 125th anniversary of the original trek. In every community along the way, from tiny villages to major cities, they were met with enthusiastic applause. Even though the average Canadian is most likely to encounter a Mounted Policeman while being handed a speeding ticket, the myth of the RCMP seems as strong as ever.


Michael Dawson, The Mountie from Dime Novel to Disney (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1998); William R. Morrison, Showing the Flag: The Mounted Police and Canadian Sovereignty in the North, 1894-1925 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985); Keith Walden, Visions of Order.' The Canadian Mounties in Symbol and Myth (Toronto: Butterworth, 1982); Reg Whitaker and Gary Marcuse, Cold War Canada: The Making of a National Insecurity State, 1945-1957 (University of Toronto Press, 1994).

R.C. Macleod is Professor at the University of Alberta. With David Schneidermen he is author of Police Powers in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1994)

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