Pride In The Red Serge

May 1, 1998 by Bill Fairbairn

My only run-in with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came on the ice at Williams Lake, B.C. It was 30 years ago and my first winter in Canada. I was news editor for the Williams Lake Tribune and the media and police were hockey rivals in a community fund-raising event. I had no option but to play the game.

And so there I was, puttering around, trying to touch the puck as players skated circles around me. Suddenly a deafening howl erupted and I was plucked from behind, kilt and skates in the air–a Scot always plays field hockey in his kilt–and thrust into a police vehicle. Minutes later I was in the hoosegow, charged with obstructing traffic on the rink. Yes, the Mounties got their man.

This amusing incident came to mind when I was assigned to write a story marking the RCMP’s 125th anniversary. When I mentioned it to RCMP Commissioner Philip Murray, he just laughed and said it shows how well RCMP detachments have melded into the communities they serve.

The North West Mounted Police–the force’s original name–was established on May 20, 1873, but its origins date back to the late 1860s when Canada was negotiating the acquisition of vast territories known as Rupert’s Land. For nearly 200 years the Hudson’s Bay Co. had ruled this land without serious friction between the native population and fur traders. “The Canadian takeover meant the imposition of a government that would systematically interfere with native customs for the first time,” notes R.C. Macleod in The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Thousands of settlers would arrive to occupy the lands where Cree and Blackfoot hunted buffalo without restraint. At worst, the tensions generated by this process might erupt into the kind of warfare experienced in the American West…. The Canadian government also feared that violence in the new territories might provide American expansionists with an excuse to move in.”

The idea of a mounted police force to bring order to Canada’s frontier was proposed by Sir John A. Macdonald. He conceived of a force of mounted police whose first responsibility would be to establish friendly relations with what we now call aboriginal people and to maintain the peace as settlers arrived. “They are to be purely a civil, not a military body, with as little gold lace, fuss, and fine feathers as possible, not a crack cavalry regiment, but an efficient police force for the rough and ready–particularly ready–enforcement of law,” Macdonald told the House of Commons on May 3, 1873.

The first contingent of 150 recruits left Ontario in August 1873 and spent the following winter at Fort Garry in Manitoba. The second contingent was mobilized in 1874 at Toronto under the force’s first commissioner, Lieutenant-Colonel George Arthur French. On June 19, 1874, it travelled west by United States railway and eventually met up with the first contingent. In early July, 275 men began marching across the prairies toward southern Alberta. The trek was long and arduous, but the fledgling corps survived and eventually reached Cypress Hills in what was then the North West Territories district of Assiniboia.

When the mounted police arrived on the frontier they established patrols, posts and forts, explained Dr. William Beahen, RCMP historian and chairman of the 125th anniversary committee. One job was to protect Indians from Montana whisky traders. These were seen as unscrupulous men who undermined the culture of the prairie Indian people by taking their furs and horses in exchange for “Whoop-Up bug juice.” The potent drink contained a quart of whisky, a pound of chewing tobacco, a handful of red pepper, a bottle of Jamaican ginger and a quart of molasses. The mixture was diluted with water and heated to make “firewater”.

When Blackfoot chief Crowfoot signed a historic treaty on Oct. 20, 1877, he stated: “If the police had not come to the country, where would we all be now? Bad men and whisky were killing us so fast that very few…of us would have been left today. The police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter. I wish them all good and trust that all our hearts will increase in goodness from this time forward.”

Beahen noted that when numerous settlers arrived from the east after the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the police not only enforced the law to the benefit of all, but ensured that services were available to sustain the newcomers from the hardships of the unfamiliar environment. He said the force’s success led to its use in other frontier situations. “In the 1890s word of the discovery of gold in the Klondike brought hordes of inexperienced and ill-equipped prospectors to the Yukon Territory. Fortunately, the mounted police arrived on the scene to prevent serious disorder thus enshrining the gold rush as one of the most colorful episodes in Canadian history rather than one of the most tragic.”

To help commemorate the 125th anniversary, Beahen and former RCMP historian Stan Horrall wrote a book called Red Coats On The Prairies, and an extract from it deals with a famous Mountie myth. “The precise origin of the shibboleth that ‘the Mounties always get their man’ is unknown. A variation of the phrase appeared in the Fort Benton (Montana) Record as early as 1877 when the newspaper concluded an account of the NWMP’s arrest of three whisky smugglers with the remark ‘the military police are worse than bloodhounds when they scent the track of a smuggler and they fetch their men every time.’ This image appealed to the public and was transformed into an exaggerated false notion, which was widely believed, that the Mounted Police literally caught every criminal they went after. The legend is, however, an accurate reflection of the perseverance often shown by the NWMP work.”

By the early 1900s, the Klondike gold rush was pretty well over and the force began to concentrate on other parts of the North. The first mounted police post north of the Arctic Circle was established in 1903 at Fort McPherson. That same year the force began collecting customs duties from whalers operating on the Beaufort Sea. It also established a post at Cape Fullerton on the western shore of Hudson Bay.

In 1904, King Edward VII granted the force use of the prefix “Royal” in recognition of distinguished service by many NWMP men in the Boer War. During that war, which began in October 1899, more than 200 members were granted leave of absence to serve with the Canadian contingents. Horrall, in his book The Pictorial History of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, wrote that the men “provided a nucleus of officers and men for two battalions of mounted rifles: the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, commanded by (former NWMP) commissioner, Lt.-Col. L.W. Herchmer, and the Lord Strathcona Horse, commanded by (Lt.-Col.) S.B. Steele.”

Another mounted policeman who volunteered for service in the war in South Africa was Constable James H. MacBrien. As Major-General Sir James MacBrien, he presided over the formation of the National Defence Department and was commissioner of the RCMP from 1931 until he died in 1938.

“At the outbreak of war in 1914,” wrote Horrall, “the government refused to allow members to volunteer for active service, believing that essential police services had to be maintained in Canada. Many westerners felt that the force should be sent overseas as a distinctive representative of the prairie provinces…. Members felt very strongly that they should be given an opportunity to fight.”

However, by the spring of 1918 the government had changed its position because cavalry reinforcements were needed overseas. Eventually, 12 officers and 726 men were granted a leave of absence from the force and transferred to the armed forces. In England, men from the NWMP formed a cavalry squadron that saw action in France and Belgium. Another opportunity to fight arose later that year when a second squadron of cavalry left Vancouver for Vladivostok to support the allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. “After several months spent kicking its heels outside Vladivostok, it returned to Canada in June 1919,” writes Horrall.

Two ex-Mountie constables earned the Empire’s highest battlefield bravery medal during WW I. Michael O’Leary of the Irish Guards and George Randolph Pearkes of the Canadian Mounted Rifles received the Victoria Cross. Both had arrived in Canada from Britain prior to the war and both had found adventure in the NWMP. O’Leary returned to Ireland after the war and Pearkes went on to become defence minister from 1957—60; lieutenant-governor of British Columbia, 1960-68; Legion grand president, 1966—76; and Legion vice-patron, 1977—84.

In 1920, the mounted police force merged with the Dominion Police, a federal force that had been established in 1868 to guard government buildings and enforce federal statutes. That same year, the name of the NWMP was changed to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and headquarters was transferred to Ottawa from Regina. This new police force was now responsible for the enforcement of federal legislation throughout the country. In 1928, the RCMP undertook provincial police duties in Saskatchewan. Four years later, similar contract arrangements were made with the other prairie provinces and the Maritime provinces.

When WW II broke out, RCMP marine and air section personnel went to the Royal Canadian Navy or the Royal Canadian Air Force to help maintain Canada’s internal security. Approximately 125 officers and men organized into No. 1 Provost Company, RCMP, 1st Cdn. Division and sailed for England in December 1939. These men saw action at Dieppe, in Sicily and Italy and in Northwest Europe. Closer to home, the small RCMP supply vessel St. Roch patrolled Canada’s northern waters. Between 1940-42, St. Roch became the first ship to traverse the Northwest Passage from west to east, sailing from Vancouver to Halifax. The ship also formed a temporary winter detachment from which patrols were made to Inuit settlements, seal camps, missions and trading posts.

The force grew again in 1950 when it assumed the provincial policing duties in British Columbia and undertook enforcement of provincial and federal legislation in Newfoundland. Women were admitted to the ranks in 1974 as part of an effort to accommodate more visible minorities. Today, the force employs approximately 20,000 people. Some 15,000 are uniformed members of which 1,700 are women.

The force, which is commanded by the commissioner who reports to the Solicitor General of Canada, consists of 13 operational divisions, alphabetically designated, with headquarters for each generally located in provincial or territorial capitals. It provides provincial or territorial policing in all the provinces and territories except Ontario and Quebec.

The RCMP has also increased its involvement with police agencies in other countries, particularly in the area of drug enforcement and economic crime. In addition, RCMP personnel have participated in United Nations missions in Namibia, the former Yugoslavia and in Haiti. In Namibia, for example, 100 RCMP members worked in 18 places in 16 locales at various times between October 1989 and April 1990. Their job was to monitor the South West Africa Police, called SWAPOL; monitor the demobilization of SWAPOL’s counter-insurgency force; and monitor free and fair elections. In Haiti, RCMP members provided policing and helped train Haitians to become police.

Throughout its history the RCMP has attracted Canadian, British and American authors and film-makers who have helped create a vivid and popular image of a fearless and infallible force. In the 1917 film Until They Get Me, the world saw flashed across the screen the famous line: The Mounties always get their man.

This great expectation, of course, is not very practical in the real world where criminals sometimes have more resources than police. The force’s image has also had to weather some very embarrassing moments, particularly during the rise in separatism in Quebec in the early 1970s. That’s when it was discovered that the force had engaged in such illegal activities as burning a barn and stealing a membership list of the Parti Québécois.

Nevertheless, the RCMP tries to uphold the motto it adopted soon after its formation. “Maintiens le droit” means “Uphold the Right.” It is the force’s commitment to justice for all, a message it will carry into the future.

Looking toward the future, RCMP Superintendent Brian Phillips believes that good leadership is the key to success. In a University of Ottawa research paper, he states that the RCMP must break up its own bureaucracy, invest in its people, build communities of practice within the force, build a learning organization and make better use of information technology.

Chief Superintendent Dawson Hovey, the RCMP’s director of public affairs and information, said the force is adjusting to Canada’s increasing cultural diversity, but has to do better. Today’s intakes of recruits–30 per cent white male, 33 per cent visible minority and aboriginal, 37 per cent female–reflect the effort that’s being made. “We try to mirror the communities we serve,” he said, noting that the community of Richmond, B.C., is approximately 70 per cent non-white. “Some of those newcomers come from countries where police are corrupt or repressive. We have to gain their confidence and support.”

Phillips said the RCMP must always be learning from its experiences. “The task is to reduce crime. Improving the standard of living of all Canadians would help. In a perfect world there would be no crime. One key factor is that new productivity is enabled by empowering people to do what they inherently know is the right thing to do.”

The year-long anniversary events are not about the great exploits of the RCMP, explained Commissioner Murray. “They are about the relationship between RCMP employees and the Canadian public. That’s something we have earned. It hasn’t just evolved recently. It has been nurtured over the whole of our history. The contemporary force is enjoying the fruits of the good relationship our predecessors established and that’s what we’re celebrating.”

The theme for the anniversary year is: A Proud History–A Challenging Future. Activities scheduled for May 23 include a regimental ball at the RCMP cadet training academy in Regina and the Musical Ride’s mounted arms display at Rockcliffe, Ottawa, where the horses are trained.

The important anniversary year will also see the RCMP administrative building in Regina named after commissioner A.B. Perry, who led the force from 1900 to 1923. Meanwhile, the headquarters building in Ottawa will be named after Leonard Nicholson, a Royal Military College-trained Provost marshal in WW II, who led the RCMP from 1951-1959.

Although many of the events will focus on the national importance of the RCMP, Murray is quick to praise the typical constable, corporal or sergeant. “They are the bread and butter of the force. The ones who make it happen.”

Other anniversary events include lobster festivals in the east, ceremonial parades in Quebec, powwows in the west, heritage days in British Columbia, mountain climbing in the Yukon, 100 television vignettes and a one-hour National Film Board documentary. In addition, the Halifax Tattoo, July 1-7, will pay tribute to RCMP links with the military.

Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Mint is producing a gold and a silver coin in various packages and Canada Post Corporation is expected to issue an anniversary stamp. After performing in Ottawa, the Musical Ride–400,000 pounds of jet-black horses and scarlet-clad men and women– will tour the rest of the country.

The Royal Canadian Legion and the RCMP have developed a good relationship over the years and the RCMP’s commitment to the Legion and to remembrance is evident in hundreds of communities. During its dominion convention in Winnipeg this June, the Legion will present the RCMP with an anniversary gift. Without a doubt, the occasion will add to the year’s celebration, but it will also highlight the important link that exists between the two organizations. Ordinary membership in the Legion is open to RCMP members who have served with the force for at least a year, and the commissioner was made a Legion honorary vice-president last year.

The various divisions of the RCMP are also planning several events to mark the force’s 125th anniversary. The contacts or division event co-ordinators are as follows:

Atlantic Region: Dale Veniot, B Div., Newfoundland, (709) 772-5439; Philip Pitts, L Div., Prince Edward Island, (902) 566-7100; Irv Mossman, H Div., Nova Scotia, (902) 426-7212; Jim McAnany, J Div., New Brunswick, (506) 452-2636.

Central Region: Yves Duguay, C Div., Quebec, (514) 939-8374; Geoff Manchester, O Div., Ontario, (519) 640-7323; Denis Auger, A Div., National Capital area, (613) 993-8556.

Northwest Region: Bill Menzies, D Div., Manitoba, (204) 984-0945; Gloria Nichol, RCMP Depot Div., Saskatchewan, (306) 780-5761; Darrell Madill, F Div., Saskatchewan, (306) 780-7763; Wayne Carroll, K Div., Alberta, (403) 945-5434; Dave West, G Div., Northwest Territories, (867) 669-5125.

Pacific Region: Lorne Smith, E Div., Vancouver, (604) 264-2231; Brian Huddle, M Div., Yukon, (403) 667-5512.

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