The tongue-and-cheek lyrics by Crack the Sky celebrates Canada’s paramilitary organization and shows how enduring the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s image was within North American culture. But no police force perhaps better represents the do-it-all spirit of Crack the Sky’s song than the Newfoundland Rangers.
“Operational for only 15 years,” Ellen Power wrote for Heritage NL, “the creation of this police force is an often-overlooked part of this province’s history.”
“Firefighter, truancy officer, customs officer—there were few government roles that a Ranger did not perform at least once.”
Before the rangers, there was little to no policing in the Dominion’s remote regions, with the country’s law enforcement, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, mainly serving the Avalon Peninsula. But when the global economy folded beneath the weight of the Great Depression, Newfoundland went bankrupt.
In 1933, The Almree Report recommended Britain suspend responsible government in Newfoundland for a commission-led power. They also noted the need for a “formation of Garden Wardens,” meant to reap uncollected fines and tariffs and potentially remedy the country’s socio economic landscape.
And by 1935, those “Garden Wardens,” modelled after the RCMP, would effectively become the Newfoundland Rangers; however, its first officers soon found they were manning a lot more than just gardens.
“Firefighter, truancy officer, customs officer—there were few government roles that a Ranger did not perform at least once,” Power wrote.
Though formally under the Department of Natural Resources, the day-to-day duties of the rangers extended to all six government departments. From enforcing quarantines during epidemics to accompanying residents suffering with mental illness to the hospital in St. John’s, there wasn’t a task these mounted men couldn’t handle.
“‘They delivered babies, pulled hundreds of aching teeth, set broken hips, saved perhaps a thousand people from death by drowning and exposure,’” author Harold Andrew Horwood quoted in A History of The Newfoundland Ranger Force.Though the 30 initial recruits would soon expand to 50 members in 1936, detachments were run by a single ranger, making each officer essentially responsible for policing hundreds of square miles of rural, rugged land. Some angers in Labrador even had to construct their own detachment offices and living quarters.
“The organization, though initially inspired by the RCMP, was operated on only a fraction of the budget,” Power wrote.
Even if the rangers didn’t have the same financial luxuries as the RCMP, requirements to enlist and remain in the force kept to RCMP-like strictness. Rangers had to be physically fit, between the ages of 21 and 28, at least 5’9’’ and have a Grade 11 education. The rangers only accepted single men, but those men could marry upon completing their five-year enlistment and with due permission from headquarters.
Still, when it came to overseeing their communities, rangers showed surprising flexibility.
“The rangers, however, were usually sympathetic to the plight of the country’s poor and most people welcomed them into their communities,” the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Website wrote.
“Unlike the St. John’s-based Commission of Government, rangers had first-hand knowledge of the tremendous destitution afflicting outport communities.”
Because of this, rangers would break Commission legislation by expanding benefits to residents on a case-by-case basis, often helping the working poor who were excluded from government assistance even though they were at risk of starving.
“Instead of reprimanding the rangers for opposing policy, government officials frequently commended their leadership and sensitivity,” the heritage website went on to write.
“Their work was an early milestone in the development of government social welfare programs in Newfoundland and Labrador,” Power wrote.During the Second World War rangers helped enforce ration and blackout orders, patrol for enemy craft, recruit volunteers, issue national registration cards and place military deserters into custody.
But following Newfoundland joining Confederation in 1949, the rangers were no longer needed thanks to the RCMP. Fifty-two of the 56 active rangers transferred to Canada’s national police service, though they’d have to drop one rank due to the RCMP’s higher pay scale. The majority of those who transferred would eventually achieve the rank of staff sergeant or sergeant.
With a total of 204 men serving throughout their history, the rangers disbanded on Aug. 1, 1950.
But even in the wake of the RCMP takeover, the Newfoundland Rangers are celebrated as a prime example of balancing force with tolerance, bringing a new definition to Crack the Sky’s “Rangers At Midnight.”