The Dominion government's advertisement asked for volunteers "able to read and write either the English or French language" with "good antecedents" who were good horsemen. Across the Dominion, young men applied, craving adventure, their imaginations fired by James Fennimore Cooper. They were joining the North-West Mounted Police to tame the wild frontier.
On May 23, 1873 the Dominion Parliament passed an act establishing a "Mounted Police Force for the North-West Territories." Its most immediate objectives were to stop the liquor traffic among the natives and gain their respect and confidence. On August 30, 1873 the NWMP was established. It was originally to be called the North-West Mounted Rifles. With a stroke of his pen, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald created the police force that became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The need for law and order in the West became apparent after Riel's Red River Rebellion. America's experience made it obvious that Indian Treaties were needed, as was a measure of control - of the white population. Foremost in Macdonald's mind as he considered the problem of the plains was the violence of the Indian wars during America's westward expansion, which had cost hundreds of lives and millions of dollars. Canada could not afford to follow America's example. Macdonald resolved to have law and order before settlement.
A wave of fur traders from the American Northwest, coming to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company, preceded the settlers. Frontier life attracted "unique" characters, men who were "dangerous, desperate...pathologically independent" and often apathetic to the plight of native peoples. They established fortified trading posts with names as colorful as themselves - Slideout, Standoff and the infamous Whoop-up.
By 1873 these "free traders" had subsumed most of the Blackfoot trade, exchanging trinkets, rifles, ammunition and blankets for meat and fur. The Blackfoot culture was succumbing to many influences: horses, intermarriage with fur traders, smallpox, and the buffalo's decline. Finally, it was drowned by cheap whiskey, which the traders often adulterated to enhance its effects and profits. "Whoop-up Bug Juice" was a potent mix of whiskey, chewing tobacco, red pepper, Jamaican ginger, molasses and a dash of red ink.
|North-West Mounted Police at Dawson, Yukon (courtesy National Archives of Canada/C-22074).|
The natives, hooked and craving the foul potion, traded their last possessions, and their dignity, for a cup. Native traditions collapsed as dissipation led to crime and violence. With no law enforcement, the Northwest was truly the Wild West.
Observers reported the debauched conditions to Ottawa, asserting that the "institutions of Law and Order, as understood in civilized communities, are wholly unknown." Macdonald established the paramilitary force of mounted police modeled after the Royal Irish Constabulary. The call for a "few good men" was answered by a motley assortment of clerks, schoolteachers, farmers, coopers and sundry others lacking military service, some of whom had never ridden a horse. The goal of rescuing the Blackfoot people from the evils of alcohol attracted a few temperance leaguers, but the new force was more "an enclave of two-fisted drinkers who frowned upon over-eager whiskey hunting and became positively ill at the idea of pouring confiscated whiskey onto the ground."
They were recruited and trained quickly; living under miserable conditions that were a far cry from the life they had imagined "would be one grand round of riding wild mustangs...chasing whisky traders and horse thieves, potting hostile savages and hobnobbing with haughty Indian Princes and lovely unsophisticated Princesses." The original 150 men proved too small a force to handle the Northwest. Additional recruiting sent a second group of 150 on the March West to join the first group.
The NWMP became part of the legend of the West, a romantic vision of adventure and heroism, spawning stories of larger-than-life characters, like Sam Steele who "wore his manhood like a badge of honor but pushed himself as if it were on loan." Tough men like Steele whipped the recruits into shape and civilized the Northwest.
With WWI imminent, the NWMP role neared its end. Force members were anxious to volunteer for war service but the government, concerned about German settlers on the prairies, refused to release them. By 1917, that anxiety had subsided, replaced by reports of American pro-German sympathizers planning action in Canada. Finally, in 1918, the NWMP was permitted to send two cavalry squadrons "over there."
After the war, civil unrest in western Canada demanded the Force be increased. After the Winnipeg General Strike, the government, fearing revolution, decided there must be a single federal police force. In February 1920 the NWMP absorbed the Dominion Police, which had policed eastern Canada. The new Force became responsible for enforcing federal laws "from sea to sea." It was renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.