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Red Deer and the Law, 1900-20

by Jonathan Swainger

Page 1  |  

Red Deer Court House, February 1968: The intermingling of law and business in pursuit of identity and purpose as a judicial district.Uprooting one's family and setting out for western Canada during the 40 years after 1880 was a momentous decision. Even for those who were reasonably well-heeled or properly prepared for what awaited them, the journey and the life which followed on the prairies would be, to say the least, an extraordinary challenge. Although many carefully packed those belongings they believed necessary to reconstruct their lives in the Canadian West, those who came from central and eastern Canada unconsciously imported one of the most important articles of the lives and communities they had left behind. Along with their quilts, family bibles, and butter churns, they brought familiar notions of law, order and civility.1  Thus, although the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) shouldered the burden of establishing the presence of Canadian law on the Prairies, it was equally true that the homesteaders and community leaders played a crucial role in defining the substance and meaning of law and order in the years before 1920.

The intersection of Red Deer's history and the legal system can be viewed from a number of different perspectives. First, the Methodist founders who envisioned, and then later built, the central Alberta community of Red Deer, took their responsibilities seriously. They believed they were not merely settlers, but were working to create "... one of the finest places on our earth for humanity to dwell in."2 An important component of this vision was the expectation that the law could provide the same stability that it had "back home." This stability was crucial, for without it, the upheaval of moving, the unpredictable nature of a pioneering economy, the rudimentary transportation and communication links, and the unfamiliarity of diverse peoples and cultures in western Canada would be overwhelming. In theory, the law and its practitioners could provide community leadership, uphold proper character and morality, insure business transactions, and provide a haven when events spun out of control.3 Although time eroded these expectations, the first 20 years of the 20th century demonstrated that lawyers and legal remedies occupied a crucial role in the establishment of Red Deer and central Alberta.

Second, although the police, justices of the peace (JP), and members of the legal profession assumed roles as community leaders and builders, the influence of the law was not limited to observable examples of good works and fulfilment of duty. Acquiring a legal function for Red Deer implied a great deal, not only in how it symbolized the community's claim to pre-eminence in the Parkland but, more importantly, in how a court house, law offices, and the intermingling of law and business provided Red Deer with an identity and purpose other than that of just another farm community. In pursuit of it's identity, as early as 1900 Red Deer attempted to be designated the centre of a new judicial district. Although initially unsuccessful, efforts were redoubled in 1907 when individuals such as John A. Moore and J. J. Gaetz endeavoured to get a sub-judicial district centred at Red Deer recognized by the Attorney General's office in Edmonton. Officially denied once again, Red Deer nevertheless assumed this role, despite the fact the district was not be proclaimed until 1914. This acquisition not only confirmed that legal business had been gravitating towards Red Deer since 1900 but, for local leaders, it testified to the community's prominence in many aspects of central Alberta life.4

Beneath these characteristics that broadly defined the role of law within the Parkland, existed the human reality of the legal system — police, justices of the peace, lawyers, court officials, and judges. To these individuals fell the responsibility of not only creating the order and stability which most citizens expected of the legal system, but also, for example, reconciling popular notions with policing realities. On two occasions the Gaetz family levied a complaint against Sergeant Dunning, in command of the NWMP detachment at Red Deer. The substance of the concern was that Dunning failed to protect "... the respectable portion of the citizenry, by which they meant themselves." Subsequent investigations led prominent criminal lawyer P. J. Nolan to offer the view "... that the Gaetz family resented the police because the police insisted on treating them exactly as they did everyone else in the community."5





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