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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

125 Years: The Prairie Legacy of the Mounted Police

by Ken Tingley

...cont'd

After delving into the RCMP records at the National Archives, I realized that scarcely a worse year could have been chosen to represent the history of the force. To meet the challenge of the Rebellion, the NWMP hastily recruited reinforcements, many of whom could not meet the necessary requirements or standards. The police were stationed at Fort the dispensary at Fort Macleod Saskatchewan, not Edmonton. The year was further characterized by low morale, leading to an outright mutiny, where a skull-and-crossbones flag was run up the pole at Fort Saskatchewan. Commissioner Lawrence Herchmer was required to come north from Calgary to get things under control, and a number of the men were disciplined or discharged.

Furthermore, the men were involved with several altercations with the local citizens, for which they were taken to task in the Edmonton Bulletin by its fiery editor, Frank Oliver. The barracks, which had housed smallpox sufferers, was understandably considered unsanitary. The men were suffering more than the expected level of syphilis. I could go on - and, in my innocence, I did in my report, much to the horror of the interpretive staff at Fort Edmonton Park. My first historical research project almost became my last.

NWMP barracks at GrouardDespite such discrepancies between the legendary and fictional Mounted Policeman and the historical reality, the myth is largely built on a solid basis of service to the community over the years. This often took place through the small detachments which were spread across the Canadian prairies, where the force became the first line of defence against crime and catastrophe. Author Alan Phillips, in the Living Legend, describes how, after a farmer committed suicide near Wetaskiwin, Alberta, the local RCMP constable produced an inventory of his holdings: three sections of wheatland, 60 head of cattle, 92 hogs and 14 horses. He then had to "hire three men to thresh the grain, haul it in to the elevator, fatten the stock, sell it as it became marketable and turn the money over to the public administrator, meanwhile investigating the death and locating a brother in Norway."

In the early years of Alberta, the North West Mounted Police constable had great powers and responsibilities, as justice of the peace, magistrate, and often as fire fighter or accountant. Rod Macleod, Professor of History at the University of Alberta and a noted authority on the history of the North West Mounted Police, feels that the force seldom abused this authority. His study of criminal court cases in the North-West Territories between 1874 and 1885 indicates that police tried over three quarters of criminal cases. No discernable statistical differences in the rate of convictions could be identified between these and cases tried by civilian magistrates. The crime rate among Native people in the prairie provinces was only about one-fifth of that of the general population, contrary to some opinion that the NWMP came down hard on the Indian. Macleod feels that "the true legacy from the force lies in the civil society which emerged on the western prairies." It could be found in the way in which disputes were resolved and the general fairness of that process.

Sleeping quarters at the NWMP headquarters, Fort Whoop-UpThe force also had a national legacy. When the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created from the North-West Territories in 1905, the federal police force might have been seen to have served its purpose. When it should be phased out when the frontier days in the Northwest were over. Macleod notes that a federal police force operating in the provinces was a "constitutional anomaly" since the provinces had been granted jurisdiction over policing under the British North America Act. He writes that "[the] decision to allow the Mounted Police to continue operating in Alberta and Saskatchewan after 1905 as provincial police was of the utmost significance for the future of law enforcement in Canada."

When the Laurier government considered shutting down the force, popular pressure from the West made it abandon these plans. Today the RCMP provide provincial policing in all provinces except Ontario and Quebec. "Had the force not been outstandingly successful in its main function, law enforcement, it would now be a distant memory," Macleod concludes. RCMP historians William Beahen and Stan Horrall sum up the legacy this way: "The roots of the modern Royal Canadian Mounted Police are firmly embedded in the prairie frontier...Even in 1900 the link between the original and the modern force was forged. The red coat and the Stetson was the public perception and the self-image of the Mounted Policeman."

When asked about he place of the RCMP in Alberta's cultural life, Maurice Doll, Curator of Government History at the Provincial Museum of Alberta, noted that when an exchange was being considered for the Ainu artifacts in the PMA foyer, it was decided that nothing could better represent the province and country to the Japanese than an RCMP dress uniform - now on display in Hokkaido.

NWMP sleeping quarters at Fort Whoop-UpDoll reflects that "many former Mounted Policemen formed part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War of 1914-1918. Men like Colonel Belcher and Sam Steele. They [RCMP] played a big role in settling Alberta down, and from the March West in 1873 through the wars, from South Africa to the Provost Corps in the Second World War. They also served as peacekeepers in Croatia. They were and are an integral part of many aspects of Alberta's history."

One of the most important pieces in the Government History Collection is the famous Charlie Russell painting Queen's Warhounds. In it, Mounted Police and Native Scouts track a whiskey trader. This painting, on permanent display at the provincial museum, captures the symbolic character of the police. As Doll concludes, it now has become "something of an Alberta icon."

Macleod has written that the "genius of the Mounted Police lay precisely in the fact that they recognized the realities of their time and place and strove to meet them in a humane way. With few exceptions, the police reacted to the difficulties they faces as human being confronted by human problems." They could do this because "they were entirely confident of their own position in society." This confidence rested upon their deep support among most of the people with whom they dealt day to day.

Monument to the NWMPHas this feeling eroded in recent years? The RCMP has been accused of blowing up a gas well in northern Alberta to discredit a suspect, of bungling a murder investigation in Sherwood Park by mistaking gunshots to the head for an electrocution, among other incidents. The 125th Anniversary of the RCMP has become the occasion of yet another reassessment of its role in our society.

As Macleod reminds us, during the 1970s "there were a number of embarrassing and highly publicized incidents in which it was clear that the Security Service [that part of the RCMP dedicated to national security] lacked the sophistication to distinguish between subversion and legitimate dissent." However, he concludes that today, while the RCMP "has had its share of well-publicized mistakes over the years, it continues to enjoy a high level of confidence on the part of the Canadian public." No doubt the RCMP owes some of this public goodwill to its image, grounded deeply in its western frontier tradition of service to the people of Canada.

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

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