The RCMP or Mounties are a national police service and an enduring symbol of Canada.

Genesis

The RCMP were originally known as the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP). They were formed in 1873 by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and charged with the task of bringing law and order to the lawless Northwest Territories (present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan), which officially became part of Canada in 1870. This vast and wild grassland was peopled primarily by the Blackfoot, nomadic hunter-gatherers who hunted bison on horseback and trapped animals which they sold to the Hudson's Bay Company, thus playing a pivotal role in the fur trade. As this huge prairie was being absorbed into Canada, it was also being infiltrated by adventurers from many nations - including American civil war veterans - who wanted to replace the First Nations and reap the profits of their lucrative trade. These men brought a ruthless toughness and plenty of strong whiskey, wreaking havoc among the Blackfoot. Macdonald was aware of these developments and was anxious to avoid loss of profits - and, perhaps, of native and settler lives - so he established a paramilitary force modeled after the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Thus the NWMP was born. It sought recruits between 18 and 40, able to ride horses and read and write either English or French. Constables were paid a dollar a day, sub-constables 75 cents, for a term of three years. Their principal tasks were to stop trafficking in liquor, collect customs dues, gain the support of the natives, and generally fulfil police duties. One hundred and fifty men, divided into three troops of 50, were soon collected. Hearing that wolf hunters had massacred a band of Assiniboine, the men set off, reaching Fort Garry, south of modern Winnipeg, in the fall of 1873. But this band of men was too small to adequately police the huge territory they were expected to cover; 150 more men were recruited the next year, travelling by train from Chicago to Fargo, then riding north to join the existing force just across the border at Dufferin, Manitoba.

Policing the Northwest

In the summer of 1874 the NWMP set off for a long trek of 800 miles to the junction of the Bow and Belly rivers in what is now southern Alberta. Their task was to find the notorious Fort Whoop-Up and destroy the whiskey trade that flowed from there. But the men were ill prepared for the long and wearying march; they grew starved, parched, and exhausted, and had to replenish their supplies and horses from cities across the border in Montana. Led by Métis guides, they finally reach their destination, only to find that their quarry had vanished. They straggled a little further on, then built Fort Macleod, the first police outpost in the Northwest Territories. But from these inauspicious beginnings the NWMP soon recovered, establishing several more posts over the next few years and smashing the whiskey trade that had already wreaked such havoc among the First Nations peoples.

The mighty and warlike Blackfoot confederacy found their way of life threatened by more than just liquor. The buffalo, once so numerous that herds could gallop by for hours with no end in sight, were disappearing with astonishing speed, slaughtered for "sport" by white hunters who left gigantic piles of carcasses to rot on the prairie. In the American west settlers killed natives with abandon, encouraged by a bounty offered by the government. In Canada, the NWMP tried a different method, earning the trust of Blackfoot chiefs and persuading them to sign treaties that surrendered their rights to hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory. The First Nations were expected to confine themselves to small reservations, clearing the way for a transcontinental railroad that would make Canada a united nation and allow settlement in the west.

The True North Strong and Free

By the 1880s, as the railroad and telegraph lines inched their way across Canada, villages grew up around the NWMP posts. The responsibilities of the paramilitary force turned to maintaining order amongst these rough and tumble settlers and railroad workers; they were called on to prevent violence when railroad workers struck over wage reductions and pay disputes. In the absence of any other federal government presence, the NWMP delivered the mail, conducted census, fought fires, and dispensed medical care. In 1885 they defeated the Northwest Rebellion, led by the Métis Louis Riel, further alienating them from Canada's native peoples.

By the turn of the century over a million settlers had moved onto the Canadian prairie, and the NWMP was called upon to help these newcomers, many of whom did not speak English, to adjust to life in this harsh new environment. Some, such as the Doukhobors, were fleeing persecution in their homelands; they staged massive protests against Canadian taxation and, later, conscription, and the NWMP had to protect thousands of pacifist Doukhobor marchers from angry taxpayers. The Yukon gold rush brought thousands of fortune seekers from all over North America to a wilderness characterized by extremely hot summers and horrifyingly cold winters; the sudden influx of ill-prepared gold-diggers stretched the contingent of NWMP stationed there to the limit.

Queen Victoria's 1897 Diamond Jubilee brought a NWMP detachment to London to represent Canada, as did the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 and George V in 1911. In recognition of the NWMP's contributions in the Boer War, Edward VII granted the force the prefix royal in 1904. But the Canadian government did not allow RNWMP members to take leave to fight in World War I, afraid that the many settlers of German origin might pose a security risk; towards the end of the war, fearing that Americans of German descent might cross into Canada and create unrest, they ordered the RNWMP to police the the border between the United States and Canada. Then, once the war was over, unions increased in strength and the federal government started to worry about communist revolution. So they merged the RNWMP with the Dominion Police, which had patrolled eastern Canada, and gave the national force a new name, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in recognition of its expanded national role. The RCMP continues to earn the scorn of leftists everywhere by putting down labour unrest across the country. Like CSIS, Canada's other official intelligence service, the RCMP regularly comes under attack by libertarians for abuse of powers. Still, the romantic image of the dauntless Mountie hero lives on in the public imagination, upheld by the well-meaning but dopey Dudley Do-Right and the eternally polite constable Benton Fraser of the TV show Due South.

Today the RCMP provides policing under contract to provinces (except Ontario and Quebec) and municipalities across Canada, as well as to First Nations communities. They rarely ride horses or wear the familiar red jacket and stetson hat, except for ceremonial occasions; they favour more prosaic uniforms and drive plain old cars.

Learn More

The official website of the RCMP (http://www.rcmp.ca) was a major source for this write-up. It's got lots of interesting information but needs to be read with a critical eye.

You can buy RCMP-related merchandise at the Mounted Police Gift Shop (http://www.mountieshop.com/default.asp). The FAQs there reveal that in 1995 the Mounted Police Foundation was created to license RCMP products and use the proceeds to support community policing, but lacking expertise in the area of marketing, quickly handed over such responsibilities to Disney. This was understandably rather controversial. However, the contract with Disney expired in 2000, and the foundation continues to sell RCMP-related products through such outlets as the Mounted Police Gift Shop.

Visit the RCMP Museum in Regina or online at http://www.rcmpmuseum.com/

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