Their ability to 'always get their man' has made them the stuff of legend; their scarlet tunics have become a symbol of Canada to people around the world; through their sacrifices in war they have earned regimental military honours; to ordinary Canadians from sea to sea to sea, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are their friends and neighbours at the grocery shop, the sports field and the pow wow - friends and neighbours who have pledged to serve and protect them.
The Red Serge, as the scarlet tunic is called in Canada, is not frequently worn in recent times, reserved now for ceremonial occasions. In 1873, when the North West Mounted Police were created by Act of Parliament and Order in Council 1, the brilliant scarlet tunic was expected to be the daily uniform of the few hundred constables who were charged with maintaining peace and order in the Canadian west.
Law and Order Ahead of Settlement
Sir John A Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister, who also took upon himself the responsibilities of Justice Minister, modelled the Canadian force's structure after that of the Royal Irish Constabulary, but the NWMP would derive their equipment, tactics and military abilities from those of the US Cavalry. According to legend, the red serge itself was intended to clearly distinguish the Canadian force from the blue-coated fighters of the Indian Wars to the south.
The NWMP was to be a mobile, well-armed, well-trained paramilitary force whose prime function, however, was to be community policing. In the last quarter of the 19th Century, the plains south of the 49th parallel (The Medicine Line, as it was known) were still the legendary 'wild west'. The Canadian plains to the north of the Medicine Line were still the domain of the Cree, the Siksiska, the Nakoda Sioux, the Chippewyan and the Assiniboine. Few Europeans had been seen in Western Canada; even fewer had settled down to stay. Sir John saw that there was a closing window of opportunity to send law and order ahead of settlement.
Before the NWMP arrived, the European presence in the West consisted of the Hudson Bay Company's system of forts and trading posts (none of which had managed to survive in the Siksiska region of what is now southern Alberta) and the 'Whisky Traders', who crossed the Medicine Line to make huge profits, sometimes selling adulterated alcohol to the First Nations at grossly inflated prices. Sir John knew that three things would be needed to ensure that the North West remained Canadian in the face of expansionist pressures from the south: settlers, a railway to move the settlers quickly and, before the others, a police force that could demonstrate the ability to enforce Canadian law.
The Great March West
On 8 July, 1874, a hastily-assembled party of almost 300 officers and constables set out from Dufferin, Manitoba to bring Canadian law to the Canadian West. The haste was inspired by reports that American wolf-hunters had been killing members of the Assiniboine nation in the Cypress Hills. At La Roche Perce the company split, most of the force heading to the Hudson Bay Company Fort at Edmonton. The smaller force made its way to the Sweet Grass Hills near the Medicine Line. A small band crossed the border and made their way to Fort Benton Montana to buy supplies for their struggling comrades. After the resupply, the force split again; the larger group going to Swan River, the new Headquarters of the NWMP, while the smaller band continued west in search of Fort Whoop-up, the heart of the American whiskey trade. In October the marchers, lead by Assistant Commissioner James F Macleod, arrived on the banks of the Oldman River in the heart of the Blackfoot Confederacy and within sight of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump they laid the foundation of what would become the town of Fort Macleod, Alberta.
The first few hundred rapidly established detachments and patrols throughout the future provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. By the end of their first year in the west they had built posts at Fort Saskatchewan, Fort Calgary and Fort Walsh. They had effectively shut down the whisky trade and established friendships with the First Nations, friendships which were of great help in the treaty negotiations which soon began. A repeat of the Indian Wars had been avoided. Constables acted as firefighters in the new settlements, as diplomats between nations, as medics and as an ad hoc welfare system. For some communities the detachment was also the post office. In April 1877, the Fort Benton Record first mentioned the legendary policing abilities of the Mounties:
'...another attempt to smuggle whiskey has been frustrated by the arrest of three men, who were tried, found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine of five hundred dollars each or be imprisoned for the minor period of six months. They preferred the former. Horses were sacrificed for the arrest, but the MPs are worse than bloodhounds when they scent the track of a smuggler, and they fetch their men every time.'
At Blackfoot Crossing in 1877, the now Commissioner Macleod looked on as Crowfoot and Redcrow of the Blackfoot Confederacy signed Treaty No 7 with the Crown. At the signing, Crowfoot said: 'If the police had not come to this 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 Mounted Police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter.' A few years later, Crowfoot would remember the help the police had given his people, remaining a firm friend during what were perhaps the greatest tests of the new force and of the new country.
After the Little Bighorn
In June 1876 the American war against the Sioux took a turn potentially dangerous to Canada: under the command of Sitting Bull, the Sioux routed the United States Cavalry units under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Sitting Bull had won the battle, but the war was not going well for the Sioux. The US Army had them surrounded with a huge military force: the only hope of survival and freedom was to flee north.
The traditional enmity between the Sioux and most First Nations in Canada, combined with the rapidly dwindling bison herds on which all people on the plains depended for food, had the potential to put lethal strains on the situation in Canada. The difficult and multi-faceted responsibility fell on the NWMP to enforce Canadian law on the Sioux refugees, prevent warfare between the First Nations and close the Medicine Line to cross border attacks by the Sioux on the US Army. The police moved quickly, meeting the first band of Sioux shortly after they entered Canada. Two further bands followed, the last led by Sitting Bull. A small contingent of Mounties faced down the victorious warriors of the Little Bighorn and not a shot was fired. The Mounties' peaceful relations with the Sioux were helped in no small part by the fact that Sitting Bull's grandfather had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with other Redcoats against Americans during The War of 1812. The Sioux were allowed to remain while protracted negotiations were conducted between Canada and the US on their status. Finally, in 1881, with the bison herd nearly wiped out and no more food aid available from the Canadian government, the last group of Sioux crossed back to the US to accept the farming way of life.2.
The North West is Settled
In 1883 the railway reached Calgary and with the railway came settlers. Between 1881 and 1885, the European population of the Canadian plains grew from 7,000 to 23,000. In 1883, the government increased the strength of the Mounted Police from 300 to 500. A detachment under the command of the legendary Sam Steele3 was also assigned to police the railway construction gangs, an assignment which led to the Force's first experience of managing labour unrest.
The North-west Rebellion
As 1885 opened, the North West was pregnant with the expectation of a Métis 4 rebellion. In the early spring, the Mounted Police made a desperate march toward Battleford Saskatchewan, where rumours had it that the Métis, joined by the Cree, were on the verge of taking up arms. On 26 March the Mounted Police, supported by a unit of the Prince Albert Volunteers, encountered a far larger body of rebels at Duck Lake. The Police and Volunteers were forced to retreat with the loss of 12 of their 99 men. Three of the dead were Mounties. On 2 May, the newly-arrived Canadian Militia and a force of Mounties attacked an encampment of Cree at Cut Knife Hill. In the battle another three Mounties lost their lives. The violent losses to the Mounted Police of the engagements at Duck Lake and Cut Knife Hill would not be surpassed for 120 years.
On 12 May the rebels were defeated at Batoche and the North West Rebellion was over. The messianic political leader of the Métis, Louis Riel, was hanged. The military leader, Gabriel Dumont, fled to the US The Cree Chief Big Bear, who tried desperately to keep his people out of the rebellion, and Poundmaker, Crowfoot's adopted son and leader of the Cree at Cut Knife, were imprisoned. Crowfoot refused all entreaties to join the rebellion and remained neutral.
The National Police Force - From Sea to Sea to Sea
Ten years after the Rebellion, the jurisdiction of the Mounted Police was rapidly expanded. In 1895, in time for the Klondike Gold Rush, the Mounties moved into the Yukon. In 1903 they were given responsibility for law enforcement on the vast Arctic coast of Canada. In 1904 the Force was given the honour of becoming the Royal North West Mounted Police by King Edward VII. In 1905 the RNWMP was given provincial policing authority for Alberta and Saskatchewan and for Manitoba in 1912. In 1920 the RNWMP absorbed the Dominion Police Force and was renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national police force.
And Across the Seas - War, Intelligence and Peacekeeping
The North West Mounted Police built on its Northwest Rebellion experience of combat by contributing over 250 members to the British war effort in South Africa in 1899 - 1902. The Royal North West Mounted Police sent cavalry squadrons to Europe and Siberia during the First World War. In the Second World War the Royal Canadian Mounted Police provided naval and air force units as well as performing Military Police duties. Between 1950 and 1984 the RCMP was Canada's security and intelligence service. In the 1990s, the RCMP took up international duties alongside the Canadian Armed Forces on peacekeeping missions in Namibia, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Kosovo, Bosnia/Herzegovina, East Timor, Guatemala, Croatia, the Western Sahara, Côte D’Ivoire, Sierra Leonne and Jordan.
While its members were making contributions overseas in various war and peace efforts, the Mounties at home were providing day-to-day policing in a rapidly-expanding collection of jurisdictions. Today the RCMP is the police force in eight provinces, three territories, hundreds of municipalities and, through contracting arrangements, almost two hundred First Nations. The RCMP also provide 'sky marshal' services on domestic and international flights, security service for the Government Officials and visiting dignitaries. The Mounties are a part of Canada's Border Integrity Organization, responsible for Customs and Excise, Immigration and other border control issues.
The Musical RideSince 1887 (and perhaps earlier), the Mounties have been entertaining audiences across Canada and around the world with the cavalry display known as the Musical Ride. Derived from drill manoeuvres of the British Cavalry, the Musical Ride consists of a series of equestrian displays performed by a team of 32 horses and riders and set to music. The Ride is in essence a mounted military tattoo. The riders are volunteers who have been on active police duty for at least two years. The riders remain with the Musical Ride for three years, ensuring a constant rotation of officers. As well as up to 50 performances a year, the Musical Ride takes part in ceremonial events on Parliament Hill and in parades.
Unlike many police forces in the world, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are a military unit. As such, they have some of the heraldic trappings of military regiments, most particularly the Guidon, or regimental standard. The RCMP Guidon bears the coat of arms of the Force, Queen Elizabeth's cipher, the initials of the North West Mounted Police, the Royal North West Mounted Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Guidon also bears the honours for the military operations in which the Mounted Police have served:
- North West Canada 1885
- South Africa 1900 - 02
- France and Flanders 1918
- Siberia 1918 - 19
- Europe 1939 - 45
The Guidon, when not paraded for ceremonial occasions, is on display in RCMP National Headquarters in Ottawa.
Loss and Remembrance
Even during the Duck Lake skirmish, with which the Northwest Rebellion began or in the Battle of Cut Knife Hill or in the combat of the Boer War, the World Wars or in the unpredictable environment of modern UN peacekeeping missions, Canada's national police service had never suffered such a loss as occurred on the morning of 3 March, 2005. Near the village of Rockford Bridge, Alberta, four constables investigating the theft of auto parts were ambushed and killed by a single assailant who, already wounded by the police fire, turned his illegally obtained assault rifle on himself.
One week later, a sea of red serge swept over Edmonton, where the National memorial service was held. Over 10,000 police officers, most of them Mounties, travelled from all parts of Canada and from other countries to attend. Hundreds of Edmontonians opened their homes to billet the new arrivals, so many that the RCMP issued an official request that people stop phoning to offer their homes. On the afternoon of 10 March, the thousands marched in full dress uniform, most in the famous red tunics, were led by riders on black chargers through the crowd-lined streets of Edmonton to assemble before Canada's Governor General, Prime Minister, Alberta's Lieutenant Governor and Premier and the families of the fallen officers for a celebration of their lives and of the community they had sworn to serve and protect.
The sacrifice of the four constables at Rochfort Bridge stands in its rarity as a monument and a tribute to the civil society of trust, communication and acceptance of diversity that the Mounted Police of Canada have had a powerful hand in building over the century and a quarter of their existence. The national outpouring of love and respect that followed the deaths at Rochfort Bridge makes clear that despite this moment of violence, the Canadian experiment in 'peace, order and good government'5 has been a tremendous success. As the well-known Newfoundland scholar and journalist Rex Murphy commented the day after the shootings:
'Yesterday's tragedy is a bitter tribute to the RCMP, but it is a tribute nonetheless to both their competence and their professionalism, that this is the worst thing that has befallen the force in over 120 years. A century and 20 years. That record is exceptional. I dare to guess that there is probably no other armed police service on the planet that has gone so long with such care and success.'
After three years of fundraising by the Fallen Four Memorial Society and Kids 4 Cops, The Fallen Four Memorial Park was dedicated in the town of Mayerthorpe, Alberta, near to the RCMP detachment where the four were stationed. Constable Myrol's mother, Colleen, said of the work that went into the creation of the memorial, 'We have seen the worst of humanity and now we are seeing the best of humanity'.
The previous day the Prime Minister of Canada took part in the historic celebration of the fourth centenary of Québec city, the location that gave Canada its name. So important was the memorial in a small Alberta town, he travelled across the breadth of the country, from a celebration of the very foundation of the Canadian nation, to speak at the dedication in Mayerthorpe.