Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Created by an act of the Canadian Parliament in 1873 as "a Police Force in the North West Territories," the North-West Mounted Police (as it was officially known from 1879 through 1904) was the first version of today's Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The force made its mythic reputation by its actions while policing the Canadian Great Plains from 1874 on as it prepared the West for both the Canadian Pacific Railway (completed in 1885) and the settlers who followed.

The "Great Lone Land" that became the Canadian Prairie Provinces had been held since the late seventeenth century as Rupert's Land by the Hudson's Bay Company. European American fur traders, both passing through and living on the land, worked with Native peoples (mainly Crees) in the trade and together created the Métis as a separate people. Not until 1869, with the transfer of Rupert's Land to the new Dominion government of Canada, was there conflict; the Métis, led by Louis Riel in the Red River Resistance, protested the transfer and instigated a second rebellion in 1885. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, having expanded his new nation to the Pacific Coast with the promise to British Columbia of an all-Canadian transcontinental railway and very aware of settlement pressures and conflicts between the U.S. Army and Native Americans just south of the "Medicine Line," realized that he needed some agency to govern Canada's vast new territory, prepare for the railway, and defend Canada's sovereignty against American incursion. Upon receiving news of a massacre of Assiniboines in the Cypress Hills during the summer of 1873, Macdonald acted by creating the North- West Mounted Police (NWMP).

Consciously modeled on police forces found elsewhere in the empire, the nwmp was intended to appear British; its constables' characteristic red tunics were chosen to contrast– especially in the minds of Native people–with the blue of the U.S. Army. At the same time, Macdonald carefully styled them as police rather than military so as to keep from alarming the Americans. The 300 new recruits were given a challenging task: police an area of some 300,000 square miles. After organizing in Manitoba over the winter of 1873-74, they set out west in July 1874 on what has come to be known as the "Great March," which, given its numerous difficulties, has usually been seen as epic. Divisions separated in order to set up posts throughout the region, most proximate to the U.S.-Canadian border and with a particular concentration in what is now southern Alberta, the area frequented by American whiskey traders from Fort Benton, Montana.

Once the NWMP was established, the whiskey traders were routed, and peaceful relations with the Natives had been effected, the force set about preparing the way for settlement. Constables were dispatched to smaller and more remote posts and, through a method of regular patrols and central reporting, both got to know their areas and kept their commanders aware of local conditions. Because of personnel limitations coupled with the status each constable had as a de facto justice of the peace (that is, constables who arrested also judged), the nwmp style of policing was in marked contrast to that found south of the border, especially in its initial dealings with Native peoples. "Maintain the Right" is the force's motto, and such was its accomplishment during its first decade.

From its beginning, the nwmp was a cloistered entity whose ongoing existence was not certain, and its first commissioners were concerned with public perception of the force. A newspaper illustrator from the Canadian Illustrated News accompanied the Great March west, and from that time on, journalists served to create and enlarge the myth of the Mounted Police. No single instance made this more evident than Sitting Bull's time in Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. Many Native Americans moved north of the border to escape avenging U.S. soldiers. Sitting Bull arrived in 1877. The Lakota leader trusted the Mounted Police, especially Superintendent James Walsh, whom newspapers dubbed "Sitting Bull's Boss." The negotiations between governments–Canada, Great Britain, and the United States–over the "American" Lakotas drew enormous media attention. These episodes, during which the force's actions toward the Native peoples were comparatively and retrospectively positive, are the basis of the Mounted Police's mythic reputation.

By treating people, irrespective of race, fairly, the nwmp reasonably claims a corporate reputation based on the numerous instances of casual and commonplace heroism characterizing its early history generally and its dealings with Native peoples particularly. Such acts in turn suggest a group diligence embodied in the ubiquitous "get their man" cliche. The phrase, coined by an American newspaper and perpetuated by popular writers and Hollywood's twentieth-century infatuation with the North-West Mounted Police, is still used to characterize the force in its present but very different form as a 200,000- strong national force with liaisons in twentyseven foreign capitals.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Frontier Violence.

Robert Thacker St. Lawrence University

Atkin, Ronald. Maintain the Right: The Early History of the North West Mounted Police. New York: John Day, 1973.

Thacker, Robert. "Canada's Mounted: The Evolution of a Legend." Journal of Popular Culture 14 (1980): 298–312.

Walden, Keith. Visions of Order: The Canadian Mounties in Symbol and Myth. Toronto: Butterworths, 1982.

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