Sergeant H. Hetherington, N.M.M.P. greeting two First Nations men, Innisfail, Alberta, c.1898. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

Sergeant H. Hetherington, N.M.M.P. greeting two First Nations men, Innisfail, Alberta, c.1898. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

DAWE: RCMP 150th anniversary

On May 23, 2023, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) officially celebrated the 150 anniversary of the founding of what has become Canada’s national police force. With its distinctive red serge uniform and Stetson hats, the members of this storied organization have become one of the symbols of the country, although the force itself has at times been controversial and the focus of much national debate.

The origins of what was originally known as the North West Mounted Police go back to the early 1870’s following the purchase of the vast holdings of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the West by the Canadian government. The official purpose of the new organization was the “preservation of peace and the prevention of crime in the North West Territories”.

Following the model of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the N.W.M.P combined police, military and judicial functions. The organization was tasked with the enforcement of a wide range of laws, federal and local, and were styled as a paramilitary horse-mounted unit that allowed for a cavalry-like ability to patrol vast areas across the North West Territories. Hence the name of the organization.

Given the lack of legal infrastructure in the West, the constables were given the powers of justices of the peace that allowed them to hear and pass sentence on many of the civilian cases that were being brought to justice.

There were several factors behind the creation of the N.W.M.P. The biggest was the great fear of American incursions into and possible annexation of the new Canadian West in the absence of any formal government control and enforcement of Canadian law.

These fears were fueled by the development of the American whiskey trade which caused great lawlessness, particularly in the border areas. The infamous Cypress Hills Massacre, (July 1874), where a group of American wolfers (wolf hunters) and whiskey traders killed a number of Nakoda (Assiniboine) elders, warriors, women and children over an alleged instance of horse raiding, helped spur the development of the N.W.M.P and its deployment to the West.

The N.W.M.P. consequently made its way across 1400 km of the prairies in the summer of 1874, in what is commonly referred to as the March West. It was an arduous and generally poorly organized trek. Food was bad. Water at times ran short. The loss of horses was high. Morale hit rock bottom.

However, once the police arrived at their destination of the American whiskey posts in southern Alberta, they found the establishments to be unoccupied. The whiskey traders, on hearing of the N.W.M.P. approach, decided to decamp and move their operations elsewhere.

A major challenge for the N.W.M.P. was the creation of relationships with the First Nations. Many of the First Nations welcomed the suppression of the disastrous whiskey trade, although they were uncertain about the imposition of new laws in their territories. However, after the furious campaign of retribution by the American military in the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (a.k.a. Custer’s Last Stand) in June 1876, the First Nations welcomed the creation of the buffer that the N.W.M.P. provided.

Still, there were many challenges, including the enforcement against horse raiding which was a widespread and an accepted part of First Nations culture for many generations.

The biggest factor in the acceptance of the emerging new order was the rapid disappearance of the bison (buffalo). This was the staple food source for many First Nations, and widespread destitution and starvation followed its disappearance. The First Nations quickly realized that they desperately needed the assistance of the Canadian government for survival.

The relatively positive relationship and trust between the N.W.M.P. and the First Nations, particularly of Southern Alberta, was indicated by the role of N.W.M.P. Commissioner James Macleod was a Treaty Co-Commissioner in the negotiations of Treaty Seven in 1877. He was added to the negotiations to help reinforce trust in the proceedings and the promises made.

The local detachment of the R.C.M.P. has a special “pop-up” display to mark the 150th anniversary of the Force. The display will be up for the first two weeks of June and is free to the public for viewing.

To be continued.

Michael Dawe is a Red Deer Historian. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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