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Defending the Law: The North-West Mounted Police, 1873-1920

The Red Coats are coming! No, not the British Army but our own Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The Mounties are one of Canada's most recognizable symbols around the world, with their Stetson hats, brown Strathcona boots, and dark blue trousers with the yellow stripe down the sides. Most of all, we recognize the signature bright scarlet jackets they wear. Learn about the early development of Canada's celebrated national police force, which began as the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), through the historic places associated with this organization created to maintain law and order in Canada's West. Crest / Armoiries

In 1870, the federal government acquired the North-West Territories (present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan) from the Hudson's Bay Company. Recognizing the area as untamed and lawless, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald understood the need for a police force able to control the vast territory, especially to curtail the burgeoning whisky trade. There was also the issue of settling the West to extend Canadian sovereignty from coast to coast, which required establishing good relations between the increasing number of settlers and First Nations communities. For these and other reasons, the NWMP was established in 1873-74.

To appreciate the fascinating history of our Mounties is to understand the origins of this force. Constructed in 1874-75, Fort Livingstone, Saskatchewan was the original headquarters and one of the first posts built for the newly created NWMP. It also served as the first capital of the North-West Territories from 1876 to 1877. The fort housed 185 men until the headquarters were moved to Fort Macleod, Alberta. Named after the Assistant-Commissioner of the NWMP, James F. Macleod, it was at this post that preliminary negotiations with First Nations took place, namely the Blackfoot Confederacy. Macleod, by upholding the law and respecting the First Nations ways of life, gained the trust of the Blackfoot, which contributed to the peaceful settlement of southern Alberta.

"March West" / « Marche vers l'Ouest » On July 8, 1874, the NWMP left Fort Dufferin, Manitoba to begin their famous "March West."  It was a grand spectacle: a procession of over 200 men with oxen and cattle, weaponry, 310 horses, and a three month supply of provisions advanced west with the intent of reaching southern Alberta. Determined to stop the illegal whisky trade infiltrating the unpatrolled western territory, their destination was Fort Whoop-Up, one of the earliest, largest, and best known American whisky trading posts in southern Alberta. Many Americans evaded their country's ban on illicit liquor sales by relocating across the border to Canada's west, a region which did not yet have an effective legal capacity to restrict the trade. Fort Whoop-Up, and illegal whisky trading in general, jeopardized the Canadian government's authority over its territories, and the NWMP was the solution to that problem. At La Roche Percée, Saskatchewan the Force split in half, with some diverting north to settle at a NWMP post there. The rest continued on to Fort Whoop-Up, which they reached in October, establishing their presence there. With their westward advance, the NWMP left a lasting impact of law and order and assured their place in the annals of Canadian history.

The Northwest Rebellion of 1885 is largely attributed to the constant influx of settlers to the West, coupled with the infringement of Métis rights. The NWMP became involved in the conflict, and saw action at The Battle of Duck Lake, Fort Battleford, and Batoche, among other places. "Steele's Scouts," led by Major General Samuel B. Steele of the NWMP, were ordered to apprehend Big Bear, Chief of the Plains Cree First Nation. Big Bear would eventually surrender to the NWMP at Fort Carlton. Discovery Claim NHS, Parks Canada / Lieu historique national du Canada de la Concession-de-la-Découverte, Parcs Canada

The NWMP policing efforts did not end there. On August 16, 1896, excited shouts were heard from the northern Yukon region where large quantities of gold discovered at Bonanza Creek. This triggered the Klondike Gold Rush, and led to a stampede of people flooding the sparsely populated area wanting to stake claims. This sudden influx required regulatory measures to be put in place. A small contingent of NWMP had been in the area since the early summer, but it quickly became obvious that reinforcements were needed. By 1898 there were over 250 officers stationed in the Yukon. The presence of the NWMP as a government authority became a symbol and promise of personal security amidst the frenzy of the gold rush. Fort Steele serves as a testament of the stability and order the NWMP brought to the area during those early years. The newly promoted Superintendent Samuel B. Steele, overseer of the region, best described the NWMP's impact: "The whole demeanour of the people changed the moment [the NWMP] crossed the summit. The pistol was packed in the valise and not used. The desperado, if there, had changed his ways, no one feared him." Although still a young force at the time, the NWMP's reputation had already began to grow among western settlers.

Men of the NWMP 1898 LAC / Membres du PCN-O, 1898 BAC While the NWMP was only meant as a temporary measure, their successful policing efforts continued and were eventually recognized by King Edward VII who bestowed 'Royal' to their title in 1904.  Their role in Canadian society developed, particularly with their involvements in the South African War 1899-1902, as well as the First and Second World Wars. On February 1, 1920, the Royal North-West Mounted Police merged with the Dominion Police to create the police force we are now familiar with: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The motto of the Force has always remained the same: "Maintiens le Droit," meaning "Defending the Law." From its humble beginnings, the NWMP grew to symbolize Canada's commitment to this motto, and continues to do so today.

Sources and Relevant Links

The RCMP official Web site

Library and Archives Canada: "Without Fear, Favour or Affection: the Men of the Northwest Mounted Police"

Virtual Museum Canada

The Canadian Encyclopaedia