The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is an iconic institution. Mounties dressed in their red serge parade uniforms are seen as symbols of the nation yet are also members of a police force using modern methods to maintain law and order in a country that their predecessors helped forge.
The North West Mounted Police
The Mounties trace their history back to 1873 when the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) was established, after a report to the government described Canada’s western regions as being “without law, order, or security for life or property.” It was decided that the lawlessness had to end and three troops of 50 men were recruited from Ontario, Quebec and Canada’s Maritime provinces. The force’s current name was adopted on 1 December 1920 when the NWMP and Dominion Police forces merged.
Then, as now, recruits to the force were expected to be of upstanding character. Recruitment notices promised constables one dollar a day and stated: “Candidates must be active, able-bodied men of thoroughly sound constitution and exemplary character. They should be able to ride well, and to read and writer either the English or French language.” Their duties including calming unrest among First Nations people – then known as Indians – who had lost possessions to unscrupulous traders and suppressing illicit whiskey trafficking.
A March Out West
The initial march west, under the command of Commissioner George A. French, has entered into Canadian folklore. On 8 July 1874 the scarlet clad force set out from Dufferin in Mantoba, filing through a sparsely settled region with a baggage train that included field guns, agricultural equipment and cattle. They reached their destination – near modern day Lethbridge, Alberta – and established Fort Macleod, named after the NWMP’s Assistant Commissioner, James F. Macleod.
The first outlaws to be brought to justice were four whiskey traders. Remarkably, in the era of the Wild West, no member of the force fired a shot in anger during the first five years of the NWMP’s existence. In a region with few permanent settlers the officers won respect by undertaking tasks beyond merely enforcing the law. These included carrying mail, arranging weddings and funerals and helping fight prairie fires. When required, a Mountie could also undertake the duties of a coroner and acted as a Justice of the Peace.
The Blackfoot Treaty of 1877
The red coat became a symbol of authority, honesty and fairness. The NMWP played a key role in pacifying warring tribes and negotiated the Blackfoot Treaty of 1877. Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Confederacy said; “If the police had not come to this country where would we all be now? Bad men and whiskey were killing us so fast that very few of us would have been left today. The police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter.”
Today the RCMP has more than 28,000 employees and the largest jurisdiction of any police force in the world, stretching 5,240km from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and 4,828km from Canada’s border with the USA up into the Arctic.
Royal Patronage and Exploration
In 1903, the year prior to King Edward VII bestowing royal patronage, the NWMP established its first post within the Arctic Circle on Herschel Island, in order to stop whalers harming Inuit people. Under the command of Sergeant Henry Larsen Mounties even became pioneering navigators when, in 1940, the RCMP schooner St Roch became the first vessel to navigate the North-West Passage from west to east, while on patrol and delivering supplies to isolated police stations.
Thanks to such deeds and the influence of Hollywood the reputation of RCMP grew internationally. Many people falsely assume that the force’s motto is “a Mountie always get his man” but it’s actually Maintiens le droit, meaning ‘Maintain the right’. Television and movies also tend to convey the idea that officers their red uniforms and Stetson hats for everyday duties. That isn’t the case; these are now parade dress. When you’re on the streets of Canada you’ll see members of the RCMP on patrol wearing blue uniforms.
Values of Honour and Integrity
Honour and integrity – values emphasised in screen depictions of Mounties – do play an important role in the RCMP creed. The principles of justice, mercy and truth are reinforced during the training of members of the force. Today every Mountie’s career begins with a 24-week basic training programme at the RCMP Academy, known as a Depot Division, in Regina, Saskatchewan, which was established in 1885 along the lines of the Royal Irish Constabulary’s Depot of Instruction.
Around 14 per cent of recruits drop out of the course, with is offered in English and French and currently attracts approximately 18 per cent of participants from ethnic minority groups. In 1990 Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Sikh, was permitted to wear a turban rather than a Stetson. The first female Mounties graduated in 1975 and about a third of the cadets at Depot Division are currently women.
The Sunset Retreat Ceremony
During summer months visitors are permitted into the Depot Division to watch the weekly Sunset Retreat Ceremony, held on Tuesday evenings. Mounties drill and march in formation while bands perform. As the sun begins to set the Canadian flag is ceremonially lowered.
The adjacent RCMP Heritage Centre is open throughout the year and tells the story of the force. Visitors can see early uniforms, learn about the RCMP’s diverse roles and read about episodes from its history, including serving in South Africa during the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 and on the Western Front and in Siberia during World War One (1914-1918). Artefacts on show include the Sioux chief Sitting Bull’s rifle case, medals and vehicles.
The RCMP has evolved into a modern police force. Visiting the RCMP Heritage Centre illustrates how its traditions and values reflect those at the core of Canadian society.