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125 Years: The Prairie Legacy of the Mounted Police

by Ken Tingley

Ce texte a été publié en anglais et n'est pas disponible en français.

Statue of a North West Mounted Policeman. The North West Mounted Police patrolled the West and were later renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

For two centuries the Hudson's Bay Company governed what would become the Canadian West. When the Dominion of Canada bought this land in 1870, it immediately faced the problem of administering its wide new domain. During the four years between the land transfer and the coming of the North West Mounted Police, American whiskey traders prevailed in a violent "wild west." Their posts at Whoop-up, Standoff, and Slideout ruined the lives of Native peoples. The infamous Cypress Hills massacre, in which traders from Fort Benton killed Assiniboines they mistakenly felt had stolen their horses, took place in 1873. This shocking act hastened the creation of a militia-style police force planned by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. He sought to establish Canadian presence in what he feared would become a no-man's land open to American occupation or Métis nationalist aspirations.

NWMP Headquarters, Fort Whoop-UpNo one better expressed the relief of Native leaders when the police arrived than the Blackfoot statesman, Crowfoot, in his eloquent tribute to the NWMP. "If the police had not come to the country, where would we all be now? Bad men and whiskey were killing us so fast that very few...of us would have been left today. The police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of the winter." While relations with the Native peoples of the West would deteriorate periodically after 1885, during its early years the NWMP were generally welcomed.

In July 1874 a small contingent of under 300 men, with their supplies, stock, and agricultural equipment, marched into the new territory to administer the law in the Northwest. The Canadian Illustrated News followed their progress, and Henri Julien, who accompanied the NWMP, created dynamic line drawings which still convey the excitement and peril of that epic journey. This year the 125th Anniversary of the famous March West was commemorated with a re-enactment.

Fort Macleod towerThe Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with their upright reputation and distinctive uniform, have been the defining image of Canada among foreign tourists as long as there have been Mounties. D. Leo Dolan, Director of Canada's Travel Bureau 50 years ago, had a plan to make good use of it. Dolan approached the Canadian government with the suggestion that retired Mounties could add to the general ambiance for tourists by singing arias from Rose-Marie. He explained before the House of Commons that "Americans are very emotional about the RCMP." Neither the RCMP nor the government greeted his plan favourably, but the scarlet-clad Mountie has been used strategically to sell Canada over the years. For instance, RCMP constables have patrolled Jasper and Banff during the hot summer months, wearing the expected scarlet tunics. And when The Far Country was being filmed in Jasper, Constable Cyril Barry escorted movie star Ruth Roman through the opening dance at the Jasper Park Lodge, providing the perfect photo opportunity.

I first encountered the power of the RCMP image in 1973. The RCMP Century Celebrations Committee was encouraging and funding commemorative projects across the country. Fort Edmonton Park devised a research project focusing on the North West Mounted Police in Edmonton during the North West Rebellion in 1885. I was to research and write the predictable, glorious page from NWMP history.

...cont'd

Reprinted with kind permission of Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine and Ken Tingley.

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