Saturday, February 21, 2009

Canada Calling: The Birth of a Legend

Sharon Wildwind

When the U.S. President came calling Thursday, the Canadian government trotted out the red carpet and an honor guard of Royal Canadian Mounted Police/Gendarmerie royale du Canada decked out in scarlet tunics and stetson hats. Ever wonder where the tunics, the stetsons, and the legend of “they always get their man” comes from? Here’s a short quiz.

Which of these led to the RCMP/GRE becoming THE symbol of policing in Canada?
A. The Royal Irish Constabulary
B. The Newfoundland Constabulary
C. The Klondike gold rush
D. Albert Johnson
E. George W. Trendle and Dewey Cole

The answer—all of them.

In 1871, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, had a new problem. In July of that year, British Columbia joined the five eastern provinces to become part of Canada. At the time, Canada was four years old. Macdonald’s problem was that there was a heck of a lot of geography between the Manitoba and British Columbia borders; so much geography that no one really knew how much.

The Northwest Territories was sparsely inhabited by First Nations people, Metis, a few European settlers, some American settlers, and an unknown number of courier du bois, essentially seasonal trappers and traders who kept Europe supplied with fur for coats and hats.

Macdonald’s problem was not only whether Canada or the United States would win the race to settle the Territories, but how to keep law and order over such a large land. He realized that a paramilitary force was essential and he modeled that force—The North-West Mounted Police—on the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Here’s what the RIC contributed to the legend: constables were expected to establish roots in their local communities. Most of the constables were drawn from the same backgrounds—social class, religion, and general background as their neighbors—but were not permitted to serve in their home county or the home county where their wife came from. The RIC followed a military model, with constables living in barracks, and with an emphasis on carrying military carbines and being proficient in military drill and regulations.

Plus which, another paramilitary organization—the Newfoundland Constabulary—modeled after the RIC, had been operating in North America since 1729. Newfoundland and Labrador would not join Canada until the twentieth century, but the NC had already demonstrated that the kind of police force Macdonald envisioned did worked in the north.

So, in the late spring of 1874, the North-West Mounted Police (approximately 300 men) left Fort Dufferin, Manitoba for unknown lands. Like British soldiers, their uniform jacket was a red serge coat. They also wore a yellow stripe down the sides of their black trousers to mark them as cavalry, and to complete the ensemble a round black-and-gold pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy might have envied. It was not a good hat for conquering the prairies.

Like all military supplies, the hats and the red coats were made on contract by the lowest bidder. When it rained, the coats leaked dye, and the hats, which were mostly made of cardboard, came apart. By the time the NWMP reached Edmonton and Calgary, most of the men were wearing light pink coats or had traded their uniforms for more appropriate cowboy clothes. After all, who was out there to tell them they were out of uniform?

Their orders were essentially we don’t know what’s out there; we’re not even sure how much of out there is out there. Go find out for us. Keep the peace. Keep the Americans from taking over. Write back if you get a chance.

And that’s exactly what they did. Men dropped off the trek west, in ones and twos, to establish the original NWMP Detachments. Not only did the constables establish roots in their communities, in many places the communities formed around the detachments. There is a wonderful panorama photograph of an early detachment in Alberta, a small stone cabin located at the bottom of a valley, with a stream running beside it, and nothing else—absolutely nothing—man-made visible in the entire photograph.

By the time of the Klondike gold rush, those detachments were sprinkled across the west, and up into the far north. Sam Steele and his Mounties saved an unknown number of lives during the Klondike gold rush by mounting a machine gun at the top of the Chilkoot Pass and issuing an order that every single person coming up the pass had to show proof that they had a ton—literally, 2000 pounds—of supplies with them. Anyone who tried to pass through the Mountie checkpoint without those supplies would be shot. The machine gun was never fired.

The NWMP sent a contingent to the Boer War and, as a result of that service, they received two honors, one probably a lot more practical than the other. Edward VII gave them permission to use Royal in their name and the now Royal North-West Mounted Police got to wear stetsons. Finally, they could ditch those tiny pillbox hats.

In January and February 1931, people throughout North America followed, on their radios, a manhunt happening in the far north. Albert Johnson, a trapper, had tangled several times with a posse formed by the RCMP. He had already wounded one constable and killed a second one. For almost a month the Mounties, and a bush pilot named Wop May, pursued Johnson across a frozen landscape. On February 17, near the Eagle River, after seriously wounding a third Mountie, Johnson was shot to death. It had everything high drama needed: men against the wilderness, danger, suspense, the romance of bush flying, and a mysterious villain. To this day, details of Johnson’s life before he went to the Artic remain open to speculation.

Radio listeners lapped it up, and a few years later, George W. Trendle gave North America Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his faithful sidekick, the dog Yukon King. Those wonderful sound effects of blizzards and wind, and King barking as he led Preston’s team were done by the pre-eminent soundman, Dewey King. The legend of the Mounties had come to North America.

As a final bit of trivia, the Mountie motto is not “We always get our man.” The motto is actually “Maintiens le droit.” The English translation is “Uphold the law.”


Sandra Parshall said...

Fascinating historical information, Sharon. I'm a little ashamed of how little I know about our northern neighbors. Thanks for filling in this gap in my knowledge.

Darlene Ryan said...

Thanks Sharon. I learned some new things and we did a unit about The RCMP in school.

Anonymous said...

Yes, well, what can I say guys. They're Canadian and so am I.

Vicki Delany said...

For further reading... the start of my new series set in the Klondike Gold Rush comes out in May from Rendezvous Press in Canada. The first book is Gold Digger: A Klondike Mystery. One of the main characters is a NWMP Constable.