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Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Tourism Saskatchewan

The Mounted Police’s connection to Saskatchewan predated the creation of the province by over thirty years. Sparked by the brutal massacre of a group of Indians in the Cypress Hills by some American whiskey traders, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald created the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), an institution modeled after the Royal Irish Constabulary, which he believed would ensure the orderly development of the Canadian prairies in contrast to the perceived lawlessness that seemed endemic in the American West. In 1874 the first Mounted Policemen came west, crossing the future provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in an event that would become known as the Great March West, but which in reality nearly ended in disaster because of poor planning and leadership. The Mounted Police that soon established itself across the prairies, eventually choosing Regina as its headquarters and the location for its training depot, was not a normal police force. On one hand, the NWMP did have a conventional side. For example, it dealt with a wide range of crimes from murder to seduction and from abortion to libel. In performing this role it attempted to balance law and order with community policing needs. In some instances, as was the case with prostitution, the balance often involved the NWMP looking the other way. In other examples, such as when the Mounties elected to rigidly enforce liquor laws, as occurred in Prince Albert, a huge civilian furor forced the police to back down.

The force also performed a wide range of non-traditional duties that reflected the still basic structure of the Euro-Canadian society that was displacing First Nations people on the prairies. Some of this labour included reporting on the quality of crops and helping settlers establish themselves, enforcing a variety of federal and later provincial ordinances and statutes, particularly the Indian Act, arresting and transporting to asylums those deemed insane, and even delivering mail. It also served as a de facto prison branch in the years before 1914, as Mounted Police guardrooms held on average more than 1,000 prisoners a year, most of whom had been convicted of minor offences or were awaiting trial.

Because of its paramilitary nature, the government also attempted to use the Mounted Police to deal with the serious challenge to order posed by the North-West Resistance. The Mounted Police performed poorly on that occasion, however, especially in an encounter at Duck Lake, a fact that earned them the disdain of the commander of the Canadian military force, General Frederick Middleton.

The Mounted Police survived the Duck Lake debacle and a challenge to its existence posed by the 1896 election of the federal Liberals, a party that championed provincial rights and viewed the Mounted Police as intricately tied to the Conservative Party. Through its actual work and popular works of fiction, the force eventually prospered—especially on the prairies, where it became an important institution and symbol. That significance was demonstrated in 1905 when the now Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP) (the “Royal” was added in 1904 as a reward for the service of its members in the Boer War) became the police force of the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, despite the fact that under the British North America Act policing was a provincial and not a federal responsibility. The force’s work continued as it had before.

With the beginning of World War I in 1914, everything changed. Saskatchewan was home to thousands of immigrants, including many from Canada’s new enemies, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Overnight, with the onset of war, many of the newcomers became “enemy aliens.” Fearing the presence of a fifth column across the prairies, the federal government increased RNWMP ranks by 505 non-commissioned officers and constables shortly after the war began. Almost of all of these new recruits were trained at Regina, home of the Mounted Police and also the location of a reserve unit capable of dealing with a major disturbance. Until the end of 1916 the Mounted Police mixed regular policing duties with new war work including the monitoring of enemy aliens in Alberta and Saskatchewan—the latter task mandated by an Order-in-Council passed by the federal government in October 1914. Then, wishing to devote more resources to the broader issue of national security and to a RNWMP unit to be sent overseas, the Mounted Police gave up its regular policing duties as Alberta and Saskatchewan created new provincial police forces that began operating on January 1, 1917.

Despite being replaced by the Saskatchewan Provincial Police (SPP), the RNWMP, which became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in 1919, never left Saskatchewan. It continued to enforce federal statutes like the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act; offered assistance to federal government departments by performing a wide range of duties such as conducting investigations of immigrants seeking to become naturalized citizens; and spied on radicals (including Communists from 1921 on) and others, including labour unions and ethnic communities, who it believed challenged the established order. Indeed, the most famous Mountie of the interwar period was John Leopold, who working undercover as a Regina house painter by the name of Jack Esselwein infiltrated the Communist Party of Canada, and later gave court testimony that helped to send to jail several senior party leaders.

These varied roles represented the general pattern of the RCMP’s work in Saskatchewan until 1928, when for financial reasons the provincial government elected to eliminate the SPP and replace it with the RCMP. The RCMP expanded its numbers in the province and returned to regular policing duties in addition to the other tasks it had been performing. With the arrival of the Great Depression, the RCMP in Saskatchewan found itself surrounded in controversy, as it was at the forefront of controlling the discontent of many citizens suffering from the economic breakdown. In September 1931, under suspicious circumstances, Mounted Policemen shot and killed three striking miners in a confrontation in downtown Estevan. Then in 1933 the RCMP leadership in Saskatchewan elected to storm a relief camp at the exhibition grounds in Saskatoon; the raid sparked a riot that resulted in a number of injuries and arrests, and in the death of a Mounted Policeman. Finally, and most famously of all, it was the RCMP in June 1935 that prevented unemployed protesters, travelling to Ottawa from Vancouver as part of the On-to-Ottawa Trek, from leaving Regina. On July 1 the RCMP commander in Regina ordered the arrest of the Trek leaders at a large public gathering; this action sparked a massive riot in the centre of Saskatchewan’s capital and resulted in the death of a city policeman, dozens of injuries and arrests, and considerable property damage. Once again, however, the RCMP escaped official blame (which the Trek leadership received) for what became known as the Regina Riot.

The RCMP’s work on behalf of the provincial and federal governments in the Depression ended any challenges to its domination of policing in Saskatchewan, although the force still found itself at times embroiled in controversy, particularly when it came to dealing with Aboriginal Canadians. For citizens living outside of major cities, the RCMP continued to be the only police presence that they knew. In turn, the presence of the RCMP training depot and museum in Regina became an important tourist attraction for the city and the province. In 1998 and 1999 the RCMP celebrated the 125th anniversary of first its creation and then its deployment. Welcoming the celebrations, the citizens of Saskatchewan offered a warm welcome to the famous RCMP musical ride and a re-enactment of the original march west.

Steve Hewitt

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Further Reading

Macleod, R.C. 1976. The NWMP and Law Enforcement, 1873–1905. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Baker, W. (ed.). 1998. The Mounted Police and Prairie Society, 1873–1919. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center; Hewitt, S.R. 1997. “‘Old Myths Die Hard’: The Mounted Police in Alberta and Saskatchewan, 1914–1939.” PhD Dissertation, University of Saskatchewan.
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provided by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan.
University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
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Diversification de l'économie de l'Ouest Canada et le gouvernement de la Saskatchewan.