RCMP: A brief history
CBC News Online | June 22, 2005
It may be Canada's best-known symbol internationally: a police officer in a scarlet coat, sitting on a horse. It's been used to promote Canada abroad since 1880 – and was glamourized by Hollywood in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
Hollywood took great liberties with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and is usually cited as the source of the saying that the Mounties "always get their man." However, the phrase can be traced to the Fort Benton [Montana] Record in April 1877, four years after the formation of the North-West Mounted Police.
The force was created after Prime Minister John A. Macdonald declared that the Prairies needed a strong police force. The force's job would be to solidify Canada's claim to the West, improve relations with First Nations and wipe out the illegal whiskey trade.
This police force was initially only meant to be temporary; it was to see the West through its transition period and then be disbanded.
Macdonald modelled the Mounties on the Royal Irish Constabulary, one of the world's first national police forces.
The recruitment of officers for the new force started in September of 1873. On July 8, 1874, 275 mounted police officers set out from Dufferin, Man. They covered 1,500 kilometres over the next three months, arriving in what is now southern Alberta. They set up camp and started to build Fort Macleod – and began the work of enforcing Canadian law in the West.
Over the next few years, the NWMP set up several outposts in Alberta – and by 1885, 1,000 Mounties were in uniform.
The whiskey trade was in check and Canadian law was being enforced – as effectively as 1,000 men could enforce it across Alberta and Saskatchewan, and into what is now the Northwest Territories. Relations with most First Nations were also improving.
But on March 26, 1885, a force of North-West Mounted Police and civilian volunteers was defeated by a group of Métis at Duck Lake, Sask. The NWMP abandoned its largest post in the area, Fort Carlton, and retreated to Prince Albert.
The battle stood as the single biggest loss of life in the history of the Mounties. The federal government sent in troops and by July, the Northwest Rebellion was over.
In 1896, the future of the NWMP seemed in doubt. The prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, wanted to reduce the size of the force and eventually disband it. He argued it had served its purpose: Canada's claim to the West was well entrenched.
But Laurier didn't get his way. Support for the force in the West was strong, and getting stronger as it built on its reputation by policing the Klondike Gold Rush.
By 1903, the NWMP's jurisdiction had been extended to the Yukon and the Arctic coast. In June 1904, King Edward VII signed a document turning the North West Mounted Police into the Royal North West Mounted Police. The next year, the RNWMP became the official police force of the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In 1920, the RNWMP became a national force when it absorbed the eastern-based Dominion Police and became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The new body was responsible for enforcing federal laws in all provinces and territories.
The RCMP underwent several changes, taking on new responsibilities over the next few decades, including:
- Development of "national police services" in the 1930s, including fingerprints, crime index, firearms registration, photo section, forensic laboratory.
- The RCMP supply vessel, St. Roch, makes its historic voyage through the Northwest Passage, 1940-1942.
- Expansion and evolution of RCMP security operations: Special Branch, 1950; Directorate of Security and Intelligence, 1962; Security Service, 1970.
- Expansion of duties and responsibilities in the 1970s: airport policing, VIP security, drug enforcement, economic crime.
- In 1974: women are recruited as RCMP officers for the first time.
- The RCMP gets out of security and intelligence when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is created in 1984.
- International policing efforts are expanded in the 1990s with stints in Namibia, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Kosovo, Bosnia/Herzegovina, East Timor, Guatemala, Croatia, Western Sahara.
Currently, the RCMP acts as the provincial police force in all provinces except Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. While larger cities usually have their own police forces, the RCMP provides policing services to about 200 municipalities across Canada.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary polices Labrador West, Corner Brook and certain areas on the Avalon Peninsula, including St. John's, accounting for about 40 per cent of the province's population. The RCMP has responsibility in areas outside the RNC's jurisdiction. The Mounties are also the police force in nearly 200 First Nations communities.