In 1872 a colonel in the Canadian Militia was dispatched into the Northwest on a governmental fact-finding journey. He recommended that a regiment of 550 mounted riflemen be organised to preserve order in the territory, and to protect the surveyors and railway builders who were working their way to the Pacific coast.
In Ottawa, 1st Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald (1867–73) was soon aware of the violence in the USA’s western plains and did not want these problems repeated in Canada! In May 1873 Macdonald successfully introduced a bill to establish a police force in the territories: Manitoba, parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Canada’s northern territories, populated mainly by First Nations and Métis peoples.
But it was the whiskey trade that demanded immediate action. Macdonald received reports of the devastating effect of the whiskey trade on the Blackfoot, Blood and other First Nations. Traders from Fort Benton Montana (in the USA) had been operating illegal posts eg the notorious Fort Whoop-Up in southern Alberta. They were tough lawless men, many of them ex-servicemen from the American Civil War. In exchange for the Métis’ buffalo hides, they traded weapons and adulterated alcohol! In June 1873 First Nation people were killed in the Cypress Hills Massacre.
Mounties dressed in their red uniforms, on parade
Based on the Royal Irish Constabulary, Macdonald initially called the organisation the North-West Mounted Rifles, but changed "Rifles" to "Police" to avoid arousing the USA’s suspicions. Macdonald believed that the appearance of the unit should reflect its purpose: an efficient police force, para-military in nature, for the ready enforcement of the law. Full dress consisted of a scarlet jacket, black riding boots with steel spurs, a Russian leather pouch belt and sword slings.
In July 1874 300 officers and men of the NWMP set out from Dufferin Manitoba, with carts, wagons, field guns and a Métis scout. On a gruelling two-month, 1,300-ks march across wild prairie, men and horses endured extreme weather, hunger, disease and insects before reaching south Saskatchewan. There the contingent split, half to set up a police post at Fort Edmonton and half to Fort Whoop-Up.
For 15 years, WMP concentrated on building close relations with First Nations. The police forged diplomatic links with the Blackfoot Confederacy, which included a friendship between the 2nd commissioner Lieut-Col James Macleod and Crowfoot Chief of the Blackfoot. The NWMP convinced Indigenous leaders to sign treaties with the Canadian government and to move their people onto reserves - some considered the treaties to be mainly fair while others considered them to be the start of cultural genocide.
Meanwhile James Macleod discovered an excellent site for a camp near Lethbridge. Here he built Fort Macleod in 1874 and established a permanent NWMP presence. Police posts like Fort Macleod ended Canada’s brief Wild West period.
NWMP policies towards First Nations contrasted sharply with those of the USA Army south of the border, where there was open war with Indigenous people. In 1876, after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the USA, thousands of Sioux followers of Chief Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada, rather than being forced onto reserves by American soldiers.
By 1877 it was a tricky time for the Force's relations with Canada's First Nations. The NWMP feared the influx of American Sioux would threaten the peaceful relations between Canada and its own tribes, especially since the Sioux were traditional enemies of many Canadian tribes. The NWMP therefore paid attention on ensuring a] the American Sioux obeyed Canadian laws and b] eventually returned to the USA. How many did?
In the early 1880s, unrest smouldered among the First Nations reserves due to the disappearance of the bison herds, crop failures, bullying of Canadian Pacific Railway surveyors and disenchantment with the central government. The NWMP was increased to 500 men, but even that number was inadequate.
Clearly the cost to the First Nations was great. The treaties required the tribes to give up vast tracts of territory and their traditional way of life, reducing them to a state of dependency. And the NWMP failed to protect Indigenous interests amid the tide of white settlement, and the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Louis Riel was a political leader of the Prairies Métis people. In 1885, under Riel’s leadership and with the support of the Cree Chief Big Bear, the Métis led the armed North-West Rebellion of 1885 against the Canadian government. The fighting that followed killed hundreds of people, before the Rebellion was crushed by the police and federal troops. The rebels’ defeat had taxed the Force to its limit; but Riel’s hanging marked the subjugation of the Métis and Plains people by Ottawa.
NWMP Barracks at Regina Saskatchewan, 1885
Front from left: Big Bear's son, Big Bear, Chief Stewart, Poundmaker
The others: Father Andre, Father Conchin, Capt Deane, Mr Robertson and court interpreter.
Photo credit: Wiki
After the rebellion, Commander Lawrence Herchmer enhanced Law and Order, thus preparing the police to cope with the coming waves of settlers. They performed civic duties, solved robberies, retrieved missing livestock and broke up American rustler gangs along the border. The constables enforced the law in white communities and on Indigenous reserves.
Then a new potential crisis arose. The established NWMP post near the Yukon community of Forty Mile received news in 1896 of a major gold strike on the Klondike River which led to a stampede of diggers. The NWMP quickly set up checkpoints en route to goldrush capital Dawson City. Their strict enforcement of regulations on the Klondike prevented many diggers from dying by exposure and starvation. And criminals from Skagway Alaska were denied entry. By 1898, there were 30,000 men scouring the Yukon and Alaska for gold, yet the Gold Rush turned out to be very orderly.
The Force supplied many officers and NCOs for the Canadian mounted regiments that went to the South African Boer Wars in 1899. Then the NWMP expanded its authority north of the Arctic Circle and in 1903 established the first Arctic police post at Fort McPherson.
The Fort Museum was opened in 1957
In 1920, the name was changed to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Since 1957 the Fort Museum of the NWMP in Fort Macleod Alberta has been preserving the history of the NWMP and local First Nations.