|During the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 the RCMP was flouted as a Canadian nation symbol.|
On May 23, 1873 acting on the advice of Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald Queen Victoria gave her personal approval to the establishment of the North West Mounted Police. Macdonald was keen on extending authority over the vast, lightly populated Northwest Territories, discouraging the ever expansionist United States from moving into the vacuum, and preventing the kind of full scale Indian warfare that characterized the American frontier.
The unit was originally conceived of as an army cavalry unit to be called the Northwest Rifles modeled after the Indian Army’s famed Khyber Rifles. But Macdonald feared that military form might antagonize the native peoples and the United States and possibly lead to conflict. Instead he decided to turn to the civilian, paramilitary police Royal Irish Constabulary as his model. Rank and file members were designated as Constables. But it was organized as a lancer cavalry unit and outfitted in standard Imperial red tunics and colonial white pith helmets.
The first force under Commissioner Arthur French was trained and assembled at Fort Dufferin in Manitoba and was dispatched on its first deployment on July 8, 1874, the “Long March” to Fort Whoop-Up in what is now southern Alberta. Fort Whoop-up was a trading post established by Americans operating from near-by Montana Territory. Its trading staples included plenty of “fire water” and the purpose of the expedition of 22 officers and 287 constables and sub-constables was to stamp out the trade. Of more real concern may have been reports that the traders were flying the American flag over the fort.
Word of the advancing force was enough to cause the Americans to abandon the fort and French established his first frontier post, Ft. MacLeod nearby. The force clearly established Canada’s claim to the west and made possible a southern route for the trans-Canadian railway.
The NWMP early duties include continued suppression of the whiskey trade, keeping peace among native tribes, and general law enforcement. Each post commander was sworn in as a Justice of the Peace so that the force had judicial as well as police power and over vast areas was the only form of organized government. Because the force gained a reputation for treating native people fairly, even in disputes with whites, peace was generally kept. When Sitting Bull and thousands of Sioux crossed the border in 1876 after the Battle of the Little Big Horn seeking the protection of the Great White Mother (Victoria), NWMP under James Morrow Walsh maintained order at the Sioux settlement at Wood Mountain and the presence of a large armed force dissuaded the American Cavalry from any cross border adventures.
In 1885 the NWMP would see their first, and only, widespread use as a military force in suppressing the Métis (a distinct culture of mixed native and European, mostly French, dissent) under the leadership of Louis Riel. Simultaneously there was an uprising of dissident Cree which the government tied to the Métis. After the rebels enjoyed some early successes, Riel was defeated in a bloody three day Battle of Batoche on May 9. On June 9 the last significant band of Cree were routed and dispersed at Loon Lake. Riel and the Cree chief Poundmaker surrendered in June. Other leaders escaped into the United States. Poundmaker and other Cree leaders were sentenced to prison while eight natives were hung for crimes. Riel was hung, causing controversy and protests by French speaking Canadians who ever after regarded the NWMP as an instrument of Anglo domination. The remaining Cree and other native allies were pacified with increased rations. Peace was secured on the frontier and the Canadian Pacific spurred to completion.
The NWMP began to enter international folk lore with the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. With prospecting intensifying in the Yukon Territory and a growing presence of American miners and whiskey traders in the region—which always set off alarm sovereignty bells in Ottawa—NWMP authority was extended to the Yukon and an initial force of twenty officers were dispatched to the region to keep order and enforce customs duties on Americans pouring in over the border from Skagway, Alaska. In fact a brief attempt was made to assert Canadian control over Skagway, but the force settled for a customs port at the top of the pass leading to Dawson and the heart of the mining district.
The RCMP rigidly enforced minimum “grubstake” requirements to prevent starvation, which had occurred the first season of the rush. Miners without sufficient supplies were turned back. And there were thousands because word of the Rush came in the midst of one of the worst of the periodic economic Panics in America sending may desperate men north to find their fortunes.
The police also worked to keep out hand guns, an American favorite, as a way to reduce crime and tried to control gambling and prostitution as well. Known criminals were quickly deported. The presence of the police in the gold field prevented the violence and claim jumping that was typical of most gold rush areas. When observers retuned from the fields they unanimously remarked on the contrast between the violence and anarchy on the Alaskan side of the border and the relative peace kept by the force that earned a new nickname—the Mounties. Soon they were heroes of dime novels, melodramas and early silent pictures in the U.S. and Canada.
In 1904 the NWMP adopted the flat brimmed Stetson hat with a high four-pinch crown as the official headgear of the unit, replacing the detested white pith helmets, which were entirely unsuited for use in the north. Many units had unofficially been using the hats for years on patrol, wearing the helmets only on Parade or ceremonial occasions.
The same year King Edward VII bestowed the title Royal to the name in recognition of service Police members who volunteered in the Canadian Rifles and other regiments during the Boer War.
Royal North West Mounted Police found their jurisdiction growing. The Arctic and Yukon had already been added, and soon the newly organized provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in the years leading to the First World War.
The war brought a new roll—“border patrols, surveillance of enemy aliens, and enforcement of national security regulations.” This new national security roll would lead the force in controversial new directions, including massive surveillance and monitoring of many unions, socialist organizations, ethnic organizations and of French Canadians who were constantly suspected of separatist intentions.
In 1918 RNWMP was dispatched to help occupy the Russian port of Vladivostok as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force sent to join the Allied effort aiding White forces in the Russian Civil War.
The following year they were called in to quell the Winnipeg General Strike and opened fire on the strikers killing 4 and injuring 30. They frequently intervened in labor disputes for the next thirty years and began to be considered strike breakers and scab herders by working people.
In 1920 the Dominion Police were merged into the force under the new name Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) which was given expanded authority as a national police force with authority to enforce Federal Law in all Provinces and Territories and officially adding counterintelligence operations to its national security portfolio.
Among regular targets of the RCMP were the Communist Party of Canada, the One Big Union (Canadian counterpart of the Industrial Workers of the World), and minority ethnic and cultural groups. Ukrainians who were arriving in the Prairie Provinces in large number to escape the bloody civil war at home, were particularly targeted because they included both Red and White sympathizers. Chinese were also targeted and two percent of all Chinese immigrants were deported by the RCMP for alleged violation of the Opium laws. Special squads were organized for strike breaking and a semi-secret Legion of Frontiersmen united sworn officers with right wing civilian vigilantes.
During the ‘30’s more duties were added as the RCMP absorbed the Preventative Services, National Revenue creating the new RCMP Marine Section, a naval arm with duties analogous the American Coast Guard. The RCMP schooner St. Roch became the first ship to ever cross the Northwest Passage from west to east and later the first vessel to make the crossing in one season.
With Canada’s entry into World War II with the rest of the British Commonwealth, security functions were reorganized as the RCMP Security Service.
In 1949 Newfoundland became a full member of the Canadian Federation and the RCMP absorbed its former police unit, the Newfoundland Rangers.
The Red scare of the 1950’s was as intense north of the border as south and the RCMP was empowered to “screen out subversive elements from the public sector.” The witch hunt of public servants was extensive and was soon broadened to include investigations of alleged homosexuals on the ground that their “aberrant” sexual behavior made them susceptible to black mail and extortion. The RCMP even devised a Fruit Machine meant to discover secret homosexuals by monitoring pupil dilation when viewing “beefcake” pictures. Hundreds of civil servants lost their jobs before the program was finally discontinued.
The rise of the separatist Parti Québécois in the ‘70’s resulted in widespread abuse by the RCMP and led to a special commission which finally recommended the RCMP be stripped of intelligence duties and a new Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) be created.
Beginning in 1974 women were included in the force. Today the RCPM is a force of almost 19,000 sworn officers and another 9,700 unsworn support personnel. It is the national police force and provides policing to all Provinces and Territories except Ontario and Quebec, which maintain their own provincial forces. They also contract as local law enforcement in many small cities and towns. They also provide border and customs services and maintain a security function, including expanded anti-terrorist authority.
The familiar red tunics with Sam Browne belts, Stetson hats, blue jodhpurs with yellow stripe and high boots remain the dress uniform and a nation symbol of Canada. Daily uniforms are usually blue or grey standard police style. The RCMP fulfills many ceremonial guard functions at state occasions and maintains the famous Musical Ride, a mounted unit with matching black horses that performs elaborate drills, including a full charge with leveled lances, to musical accompaniment.
During the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games of 2010, the RCMP were featured as a national symbol in both the opening and closing ceremonies including the whimsical and humorous closing program, but also the formal raising and lowering of the Olympic Flag. It seemed like the Mounties and the Maple Leaf Flag were the two things that Canadians wanted the world to remember about them.
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