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.
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
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.
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.
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.