RCMP Recreates Historic March
Growing up in the small town of Hartney in the southwest corner of Manitoba, Grant Little believed that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police "hung the moon." Intrigued by the romantic history of the force, he always wanted to be a Mountie, and after graduating from the University of Manitoba 20 years ago, he eagerly joined up. These days, Little is leader of the RCMP's emergency response team in Edmonton and also serves in the force's drug-enforcement section. It's satisfying work, says Little, but also the sort of job that can leave a person rather jaded. "We don't really get to deal with the nicer people of the world," he observes dryly.
For the past two months, though, Little has been recapturing the spirit that drew him to the force in the first place. He is one of about 20 RCMP officers - at times joined by as many as 300 civilians - who have been riding on horseback across the Prairies to re-enact what is historically referred to as the Long March West by the original North West Mounted Police 125 years ago. That trek played a crucial role in asserting Canada's sovereignty over its western frontier and forging the nation that exists today. The re-enactment ride - which wrapped up the first major leg of its journey in Fort Macleod, Alta., last Saturday - garnered only intermittent national publicity. But in the small towns where the riders passed through, they enjoyed a hero's reception. "I've had small kids running up to me for an autograph," marvels Little. "I give them my helmet or gloves or horse to hold, and it's like Wayne Gretzky gave them the hockey stick from his last NHL game. I can see through them the way I thought about the Mounties when I was growing up."
In many ways, in fact, the re-enactment ride is a tonic for a police force that of late has been mired in controversy. Whether it's the ill-fated pursuit of former prime minister Brian Mulroney over the so-called Airbus scandal, pepper-spraying protesters at the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation conference in Vancouver or covertly blowing up an oil company shed in northern Alberta last fall as part of an investigation into alleged eco-terrorist Wiebo Ludwig, the actions of some RCMP members have placed the national police force under harsh scrutiny. But while those controversies are very real, says University of Alberta historian Rod Macleod, so is the pride the nation's police force takes in its role in helping settle the Canadian West. "The arrival of the Mounties in 1874 was a pretty important event, not just for the history of Western Canada, but Canada generally," says Macleod. "There is no question that they made settlement far less bloody than what happened in the American West."
The current horse riders are closely following the 1,300-km route taken by the original Mounties. Starting out from Emerson, Man., on May 8, they have travelled an average of 30 km a day through southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, reaching Fort Macleod,160 km south of Calgary, on July 3. Starting last week, some participants embarked on a second leg of the journey, from Fort Carlton, Sask., to Edmonton, where they are expected to arrive on July 24. This part of the trek commemorates the original 275-member expedition splitting in two at one point because many of the riders and their horses had been severely weakened due to a lack of water and provisions. About three dozen men and the sickest horses and oxen headed north to Fort Edmonton where shelter and sustenance were available at the Hudson's Bay Co. post. The remainder carried on to their final destination of Fort Whoop-Up, near the current site of Fort Macleod.
The core group of officers involved in the current trek have been joined by hundreds of civilian riders, some travelling just for a few days and others for the entire expedition. In the early going, the weather was atrocious: it rained for 29 of the first 35 days, the same horrific downpours that left flooded farmers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan pleading for emergency financial aid from Ottawa. But the weather brightened considerably as the riders emerged from the flatlands and began to climb through Saskatchewan's Cypress Hills, just east of the Alberta border.
The Cypress Hills - the highest point of land between Labrador and the Rockies - played a central role in bringing the first Mounties west. One of the immediate reasons for dispatching the force was the havoc being wreaked among the Plains Indians by American whisky traders. The area was one of the centres of the whisky trade (Fort Whoop-Up being another). And it was in the Cypress Hills in 1873 that a gang of American and Canadian wolf hunters massacred dozens of Assiniboine Indians - a tragedy that convinced then-Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to step up the timetable for sending in the police to avoid a repeat of the bloody Indian wars on the American Plains.
When a Maclean's reporter and photographer met up with the modern-day riders in the Cypress Hills in late June, many of them were glad to be heading into scenic and, for the time being, more temperate climes. As one troop commander put it, the rest of Saskatchewan had been so flat, "you could watch your dog get lost for three days." And as nearly 200 RCMP and civilian riders - all dressed in the traditional red serge of the NWMP - marched in two-by-two procession through the unspoiled hill country towards Fort Walsh, it was easy to be taken back in time. "This must be much as it looked 125 years ago," said local rancher Larry Flaig, as he pulled up the rear driving one of several horse-drawn carts for ride participants who lacked the confidence to sit in the saddle. "Those redcoats sure are a pretty sight."
Aside from the RCMP contingent, the other riders are an eclectic lot, drawn from far afield by a passion for horses, Mounties and adventure. Celina Dunlop, photo editor for the prestigious London-based newsweekly The Economist, had been at work last year when she saw a wire photo of a female Mountie with a caption describing the forthcoming march. "I thought, 'Wouldn't that be cool, to be heading off into the sunset with a bunch of Mounties,' " says the 38-year-old Dunlop. She says the trek, which is part of her holidays, has reinforced her high opinion of the police force. "For Canada to get rid of the Mounties would be like us getting rid of the Royal Family," she adds. "I don't think Canadians really understand how powerful a symbol the Mounties are for people abroad."
Jane Magnan is another foreigner participating in the march - and one of the few civilians to do the entire 55-day ride between Emerson and Fort Macleod. Magnan, who lives in Dover, Del., sat in the grass one evening after dinner and recalled a particularly challenging stretch in rain-drenched Manitoba. "All of a sudden, we were in the middle of this black storm," she said. "Lightning, thunder, hail, rain, gusting winds - and eight miles left to camp. I looked at the faces around me and I didn't see discouragement or disgust. Just a determination to get through it." Magnan admires the way the early Mounties forged peaceful relations with most of the Plains Indians. "Unfortunately," she says, "we Americans have a reputation for using force rather than diplomacy."
For 84-year-old George Cutting, the trek offered the chance to revisit old stomping grounds. Cutting's father, Percy, first enlisted with the Mounties in 1894 and met members of the 1874 trek west. Cutting, who was born in a cold, drafty house that served as the police detachment at Gull Lake, Sask., joined the Mounties as a trumpeter at age 17. He went on to serve as a riding master at the force's Regina academy before retiring in 1958. Still lean and fit, with a handsome white moustache and a twinkle in his eye, Cutting rode with the march for six days in Saskatchewan. As he relaxed late one afternoon in a bell-shaped canvas tent, Cutting told Maclean's he wished he had asked his father more questions about the force's early days. "We didn't always listen as well as we should have," he said. "We could have learned a lot more."
For many participants, the ride was a chance to reflect on what it must have been like for the young men who endured the original trek. The present-day riders enjoy catered meals, and when they pull into camp each afternoon, their tents and the picketing stations for their horses have already been erected by an advance team of army personnel and university students. By contrast, the diaries written by the 1874 marchers reveal men who were often cold and hungry, huddling together on the ground for warmth. They also had no idea of what might lay around the next bend. "I think it would have been terrifying," says Const. Gerald Bomersine, who was the commanding officer for the Saskatchewan portion of the re-enactment ride. "They had to be extremely arrogant or extremely brave. In reality, they were probably a good mixture of both."
They also got the job done. By the time the 1874 riders reached Fort Whoop-Up, the whisky traders had fled back to Montana to avoid confronting the redcoats. The Indians, initially at least, welcomed the police force, which played a critical role in negotiating the first treaties between Canada and the aboriginals, thereby helping to stave off American expansionism. "We wouldn't have Western Canada if it hadn't been for the Mounties," says Const. Susan Downs, one of the few female members of the force taking part in this year's ride. "Probably we'd be part of the United States. We have them to thank for that." For the marchers celebrating that legacy, it is reason enough to ride tall in the saddle.
Maclean's July 12, 1999