Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Canada - Scott #223 (1935)
Canada – Scott #223 (1935)

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was formed on February 1, 1920, by the merger of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNWMP), founded in 1873, with the Dominion Police founded in 1868. The former was originally named the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), and was given the Royal prefix by King Edward VII in 1904. Much of the present-day organization’s symbolism has been inherited from its days as the NWMP and RNWMP, including the distinctive Red Serge uniform, paramilitary heritage, and mythos as a frontier force. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Gendarmerie royale du Canada (GRC) in French) is colloquially known as The “Mounties”, and internally as “the Force”. It is the federal and national police force of Canada, providing law enforcement at the federal level. It also provides provincial policing in eight of Canada’s provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan) and local policing on contract basis in the three territories (Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon) and more than 150 municipalities, 600 aboriginal communities, and three international airports. The RCMP does not provide provincial or municipal policing in either Ontario or Quebec.

The North-West Mounted Police was created due to the expansion of the newly formed Dominion of Canada into the North-West Territories during the 1870s. The Dominion had been formed in 1867 by the confederation of the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but the extensive lands to the north-west remained governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The new Dominion government was keen to expand westwards, in part due to fears that the United States might annex the region. It agreed to purchase the company’s lands in exchange for £300,000 and various grants of land, adding around 2,500,000 square miles (6,500,000 km²) of territory to the Dominion in 1870.

Postcard of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer on horseback. Postcard was postmarked in 1935.
Postcard of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer on horseback. Postcard was postmarked in 1935.
Map showing the western expansion of the Dominion of Canada in 1870
Map showing the western expansion of the Dominion of Canada in 1870

The North-West Territories varied geographically from the extreme conditions of the far north, through to the edges of the Great Plains in the south, covered by flat, semi-arid grasslands. A rocky area known as the Shield, which was unsuitable for arable farming, had formed a natural barrier to European colonists gradually spreading across from the eastern colonies. As a result, the territories remained thinly populated, with only around 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and occasional small groups of Europeans, and more substantial communities of around 12,000 Métis settled in the Red River valley of Manitoba and a further 8,500 European settlers in the colony of British Columbia. Surveys referred to the territories as the “Wild North Land” and the “Great Lone Land”.

The Canadian border along the southern edge of Alberta was occupied by the Blackfoot Confederacy, a First Nation whose economy was based on hunting bison. The Blackfoot had suffered badly from smallpox, and were under increasing pressure from rival groups of Sioux and Piegans that had crossed into Canada, fleeing the expansion of the United States military across the southern plains. Whiskey-traders from the United States had come across the border, selling alcohol to the aboriginal peoples, fuelling social problems and outbreaks of violence. Although the region remained relatively safe, there was no civil government, and military explorers highlighted the “lawlessness” and lack of “security for life or property” that resulted from the absence of a formal justice system.

In 1869, the Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John Macdonald, made plans to create a 200-strong mounted police force to maintain order along the border; such a force, he thought, would enable the colonization of the region and be much cheaper than deploying regular military units for the task. The implementation of this proposal was delayed, however, first by the rebellion of the Métis, and then by the threat of a Fenian invasion. Meanwhile, a survey conducted in 1871 by Lieutenant William Butler recommended establishing a mounted force of up to 150 men under a magistrate or commissioner, based along the northern trade routes, leaving the border area as a liminal, ungarrisoned zone. Colonel Patrick Robertson-Ross conducted another survey in 1872, and recommended an alternate strategy of recruiting a larger force of 550 men who would be tasked to push south into the border region itself and establish law and order there.

Postcard of Royal North West Mounted Police officers at the Macleod, Alberta barracks, 1910s.
Postcard of Royal North West Mounted Police officers at the Macleod, Alberta barracks, 1910s.

Sir John Macdonald acquired approval for his new force on May 23, 1873, after Parliament, following a cursory debate, passed the Mounted Police Act into law unopposed. At this point, Macdonald appears to have intended to create a force of mounted police to watch “the frontier from Manitoba to the foot of the Rocky Mountains”, probably with its headquarters in Winnipeg. He was heavily influenced by the model of the Royal Irish Constabulary, which combined aspects of a traditional military unit with the judicial functions of the magistrates’ courts, and believed that the new force should be able to provide a local system of government in otherwise ungoverned areas. Originally, Macdonald also had wanted to form units of Métis policemen, commanded by white Canadian officers in a similar manner to the British Indian Army, but he was forced to abandon this approach after the Métis revolt of 1870 called their loyalty into question.

The mounted police were deployed the following year to the Alberta border in response to the Cypress Hills Massacre and subsequent fears of a United States military intervention. Their ill-planned and arduous journey of nearly 900 miles (1,400 km) became known as the March West and was portrayed by the force as an epic journey of endurance. Over the next few years, the police extended Canadian law across the region, establishing good working relationships with the First Nations. The force formed part of the military response to the North-West Rebellion in 1885, but faced criticism for their performance during the conflict.

The North West Mounted Police assisted in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, including relocating indigenous communities living along the route. The force established a wide network of posts and patrols, enabling them to protect and assist the ranchers who created huge cattle businesses across the prairies. The living conditions of the police on the prairies were spartan and often uncomfortable, and only slowly improved over the course of the century. Meanwhile, the railway enabled more settlers to migrate west, creating new towns and industries, while the force restricted the First Nations to the reserves. The mounted police faced challenges in adapting to the changing situation, especially when applying the unpopular prohibition laws to the white community. The force also became drawn into the growing number of industrial disputes between organised labour and company owners.

Troop front. Canadian Mounted Rifles with 2nd Contingent, South Africa during the Second Boar War, 1900.
Troop front. Canadian Mounted Rifles with 2nd Contingent, South Africa during the Second Boar War, 1900.

By 1896, the government planned to pass policing responsibilities to the provincial authorities and ultimately close the force. With the discovery of gold in the Klondike, however, the force was redeployed to protect Canada’s sovereignty over the region and to manage the influx of prospectors. The mounted police sent volunteers to fight in the Second Boer War, and in recognition were retitled the Royal North-West Mounted Police in 1904. The plans for closure were abandoned in the face of opposition from regional politicians. Large numbers of the police volunteered for military service during the First World War, and the future of the badly depleted force was once again in doubt. Towards the end of the war, however, fears grew about a potential Bolshevik conspiracy and the authorities tasked the mounted police to investigate the threat. In the aftermath of the violence of the Winnipeg General Strike, the government decided to amalgamate the force with the Dominion Police, the main police force for all points east of Manitoba, to form the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920.

The new organization was charged with federal law enforcement in all the provinces and territories, and immediately established its modern role as protector of Canadian national security, as well as assuming responsibility for national counterintelligence.

As part of its national security and intelligence functions, the RCMP infiltrated ethnic or political groups considered to be dangerous to Canada. This included the Communist Party of Canada, but also a variety of minority cultural and nationalist groups. The force was also deeply involved in immigration matters, and especially deportations of suspected radicals. They were especially concerned with Ukrainian groups, both nationalist and socialist. The Chinese community was also targeted because of a perceived link to opium dens. Historians estimate fully two percent of the Chinese community was deported between 1923 and 1932, largely under the provisions of the Opium and Narcotics Drugs Act (ONDA). Besides the RCMP’s new responsibilities in intelligence, drugs enforcement, and immigration, the force also assisted numerous other federal agencies with tasks such as enforcing the residential school system for Aboriginal children.

Postcard of Royal Northwest Mounted Police Headquarters in Regina, Saskatchewan, circa 1905.
Postcard of Royal Northwest Mounted Police Headquarters in Regina, Saskatchewan, circa 1905.

In 1935, the RCMP, collaborating with the Regina Police Service, crushed the On-to-Ottawa Trek by sparking the Regina Riot, in which one city police officer and one protester were killed. The Trek, which had been organized to call attention to the abysmal conditions in relief camps, therefore failed to reach Ottawa, but nevertheless had profound political reverberations.

The RCMP employed special constables to assist with strikebreaking in the interwar period. For a brief period in the late 1930s, a volunteer militia group, the Legion of Frontiersmen were affiliated with the RCMP. Many members of the RCMP belonged to this organization, which was prepared to serve as an auxiliary force. In later years, special constables performed duties such as policing airports and, in some Canadian provinces, the courthouses.

In 1932, men and vessels of the Preventive Service, National Revenue, were absorbed, creating the RCMP Marine Section. The acquisition of the RCMP schooner St. Roch facilitated the first effective patrol of Canada’s Arctic territory. It was the first vessel to navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east (1940–1942), the first to navigate the Passage in one season (from Halifax to Vancouver in 1944), the first to sail either way through the Passage in one season, and the first to circumnavigate North America (1950).

Counterintelligence work was moved from the RCMP’s Criminal Investigation Department to a specialized intelligence branch, the RCMP Security Service, in 1939. On April 1, 1949, Newfoundland joined in full confederation with Canada and the Newfoundland Ranger Force amalgamated with the RCMP. In June 1953, the RCMP became an full member of the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol).

Mounted police, circa1900, wearing the new uniform of red, prairie-style tunics and Stetson hats.
Mounted police, circa1900, wearing the new uniform of red, prairie-style tunics and Stetson hats.

In the late 1970s, revelations surfaced that the RCMP Security Service force had in the course of their intelligence duties engaged in crimes such as burning a barn and stealing documents from the separatist Parti Québécois, and other abuses. This led to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP, better known as the “McDonald Commission,” named for the presiding judge, Justice David Cargill McDonald. The Commission recommended that the force’s intelligences duties be removed in favor of the creation of a separate intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

In 1993, the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT), were transferred to the Canadian Forces (CF), creating a new unit called Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2). JTF2 inherited some equipment and SERT’s former training base near Ottawa.

In 2006, the United States Coast Guard’s Ninth District and the RCMP began a program called “Shiprider,” in which 12 Mounties from the RCMP detachment at Windsor and 16 US Coast Guard boarding officers from stations in Michigan ride in each other’s vessels. The intent is to allow for seamless enforcement of the international border. In 2007, the RCMP was named Newsmaker of the Year by The Canadian Press.

The RCMP are famous for their distinctive dress uniform, or “Review Order,” popularly known as the “Red Serge.” It has a high collared scarlet tunic, midnight blue breeches with yellow leg stripe, Sam Browne belt with white sidearm lanyard, oxblood riding boots (possibly with spurs), brown felt campaign hat (wide, flat brimmed) with the characteristic “Montana crease”, and brown gloves (with brown leather gauntlets for riders). Members wear the Review Order during the Musical Ride, an equestrian drill in which mounted members show their riding skills and handling of the cavalry lance. On normal duties, the RCMP uses standard police methods, equipment, and uniforms. The RCMP uses horses for ceremonial operations such as escorting the Governor General’s open landau to the Opening of Parliament.

Canadian flag carried by RCMP at the opening cermonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Photo taken by Jude Freeman on February 12, 2010. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Mounties have been immortalized as symbols of Canadian culture in numerous Hollywood Northwestern movies and television series, which often feature the image of the Mountie as square-jawed, stoic, and polite, yet with a steely determination and physical toughness that sometimes appears superhuman. Coupled with the adage that the Mountie “always gets his man,” the image projects them as fearsome, incorruptible, dogged yet gentle champions of the law. The RCMP’s motto is actually Maintiens le droit, French for “Defending the Law”. The Hollywood motto derives from a comment by a Montana newspaper, the Fort Benton Record: “They fetch their man every time”.

Many popular novels were published about the mounted police from 1885 onwards, and in the 20th century over 250 films were made, along with radio and television portrayals. The police were depicted as courageous, disciplined and chivalrous, displaying a sense of fair-play as they brought their suspects to justice. Historians, working from initially limited public records and chronicles, wrote similarly eulogistic accounts of the mounted police, but as new archives became available in the 1970s, more critical and analytic accounts of the force were produced. The force heavily influenced public perceptions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which used the North-West Mounted Police’s image and history to help make the modern police a popular Canadian national symbol.

In 1912, Ralph Connor’s Corporal Cameron of the North-West Mounted Police: A Tale of the MacLeod Trail appeared, becoming an international best-selling novel. Mounties fiction became a popular genre in both pulp magazines and book form. Among the best-selling authors who specialized in tales of the Mounted Police were James Oliver Curwood, Laurie York Erskine, James B. Hendryx, T. Lund, Harwood Steele (the son of Sam Steele), and William Byron Mowery.

The annual sunset ceremony by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is held at the stables for the RCMP in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In addition to the Musical Ride there were skydivers from the Canadian Army’s SKYHAWKS parachute demonstration team and pipes and drum bands from the RCMP and Ottawa Regional Police. Photo taken by Jamie McCaffrey on June 28, 2012. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

In other media, a famous example is the radio and television series, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Dudley Do-Right (of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) is a 1960s example of the comic aspect of the Mountie myth, as is Klondike Kat, from Total Television. The Broadway musical and Hollywood movie Rose-Marie is a 1930s example of its romantic side. A successful combination were a series of Renfrew of the Royal Mounted boy’s adventure novels written by Laurie York Erskine beginning in 1922 running to 1941. In the 1930s Erskine narrated a Sgt Renfrew of the Mounties radio show and a series of films with actor-singer James Newill playing Renfrew were released between 1937 and 1940. In 1953, portions of the films were mixed with new sequences of Newill for a Renfrew of the Mounted television series.

Bruce Carruthers (b.1901–d.1953), a former Mounted Police corporal (1919–1923), served as an unofficial technical advisor to Hollywood in many films with RCMP characters. They included Heart of the North (1938), Susannah of the Mounties (1939), Northern Pursuit (1943), Gene Autry and The Mounties (1951), The Wild North (1952), and The Pony Soldier (1952).

In 1959, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired R.C.M.P., a half-hour dramatic series about an RCMP detachment keeping the peace and fighting crime. Filmed in black and white, in and around Ottawa by Crawley Films, the series was co-produced with the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and ran for 39 episodes. It was noted for its pairing of Québécois and Anglo officers.

Canadians also poke fun at the RCMP with Sergeant Renfrew and his faithful dog Cuddles in various sketches produced by the Royal Canadian Air Farce comedy troupe. On That ’70s Show Mounties were played by SCTV alumni Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas. The British have also exploited the myth: the BBC television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus featured a group of Mounties singing the chorus in The Lumberjack Song in the lumberjack sketch. The 1972–1990 CBC series The Beachcombers features a character named Constable John Constable who attempts to enforce the law in the town of Gibsons, British Columbia.

Mounted police and members of the Blackfoot First Nation at Fort Calgary, 1878. Library and Archives Canada / C-008200
Mounted police and members of the Blackfoot First Nation at Fort Calgary, 1878. Library and Archives Canada / C-008200

In comic books, the Marvel Comics characters of Alpha Flight are described on several occasions as “RCMP auxiliaries,” and two of their members, Snowbird and the second Major Mapleleaf are depicted as serving members of the force. In the latter case, due to trademark issues, Major Mapleleaf is described as a “Royal Canadian Mountie” in the opening roll call pages of each issue of Alpha Flight he appears in.

Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin starred in the 1981 movie Death Hunt that fictionalized the RCMP pursuit of Albert Johnson.

In the early 1990s, Canadian professional wrestler Jacques Rougeau utilized the gimmick of “The Mountie” while wrestling for the WWF. He typically wore the Red Serge to the ring, and carried a shock stick as an illegal weapon. As his character was portrayed as an evil Mountie, the RCMP ultimately won an injunction preventing Rougeau from wrestling as this character in Canada, though he was not prevented from doing so outside the country. He briefly held the Intercontinental Championship in 1992.

The 1998 swan song of Nick Berry’s time on UK drama Heartbeat features his character, Sergeant Nick Rowan, transferring to Canada and taking the rank of constable in the Mounties. The special telemovie was titled Heartbeat: Changing Places. The 1994–1998 TV series Due South pairs Mountie Constable Benton Fraser with streetwise American detective Ray Vecchio cleaning up the streets of Chicago. It mainly derives its entertainment from the perceived differences in attitude and culture between these two countries’ police forces. Fraser is depicted as honest and polite to a fault, even refusing to carry a loaded sidearm when “assisting” Detective Vecchio.

A pair of Mounties staff the RCMP detachment in the fictional town of Lynx River, Northwest Territories, in the CBC series North of 60. The series, which aired from 1992 to 1998, is about events in the mostly indigenous community, but the Mounties feature prominently in each episode. Another TV series from the 1990s, Bordertown features an NWMP corporal paired with a U.S. marshal securing law and order on a frontier U.S.–Canada border town. In the ABC TV mini-series Answered by Fire, at least three Mounties are featured. Mounties also appear in the TV series When Calls the Heart (Hallmark Channel).

National Division stable building in Ottawa, Ontario. Photo taken on October 12, 2014.
National Division stable building in Ottawa, Ontario. Photo taken on October 12, 2014.

The 1987 Brian De Palma film The Untouchables features cooperation between the Treasury Department task force, led by Eliot Ness, and the Mounties against liquor smuggling across the Canada–United States border.

The 1995 album C’est Cheese by Canadian musical comedy group The Arrogant Worms includes “The Mountie Song”, which tells the story of a dissatisfied Mountie. In his 1999, album Soiree Newfoundland musician A. Frank Willis included “Savage Cop in Savage Cove” which was based on a true story and went on to become a big hit.

From 2011, the CTV fantasy drama series The Listener regularly features characters who work for the Integrated Investigative Bureau, a fictional division of the RCMP that brings together various specialists, officers and civilian consultants to work on high-profile or federal cases. Although characters in the employ of the IIB are rarely, if ever, depicted wearing uniform, they are often addressed by their ranks — two main characters are Sergeant Michelle McClusky and Corporal Dev Clark.

In earlier years, the Mounties had a role in mail delivery and one Mountie was even a postmaster, There have been eight Canadian stamp tributes to the RCMP as well as stamps that are considered Mountie topicals.

Canada – Scott #223 (1935) on acknowledgement of receipt card sent from Hungarian Embassy in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Canada - Scott #612-614 (1973) first day cover
Canada – Scott #612-614 (1973) first day cover

The first RCMP stamp was the 10-cent carmine rose (Scott #223) issued on June 1, 1935. A beautifully engraved stamp, it depicts a constable on horseback against a prairie background. Designed by Herman Herbert Schwartz, the horse and landscape were engraved by Harold Osborn while the Mountie was engraved by Sydney F. Smith. The stamp was printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company, perforated 12, and issued in a quantity of 4,085,500.

A three-stamp set in 1973 celebrated 100 years of the RCMP. One stamp depicts first Commissioner George Arthur French (Scott #612), and a second (Scott #613) has a spectrograph, a device used to compute the visual spectrum of a substance as a method of identification while the third centennial stamp (Scott #614) describes “the charge”, a memorable scene from the Mounties’ famous Musical Ride.

The 1935 “Constable on Horseback” was one of five “stamps on stamps” released for the International Philatelic Youth Exhibition in Toronto May 20-24, 1982. It was issued as a 35-cent (Scott #911) single stamp March 11, 1982, and it appeared with the Three-penny Beaver, Champlain, Mount Hurd, and the Bluenose on an exhibition souvenir sheet (Scott #913a) released on May 20.

Canada - Scott #911 (1982) first day cover, block of 4
Canada – Scott #911 (1982) first day cover, block of 4

The two-stamp Men of Peace set issued on September 5, 1986, featured Crowfoot (Scott #1108), a chief of the Blackfoot nation, and James F. Macleod (Scott #1109) of the NWMP who was assistant commissioner in 1874. As commissioner in 1877, Macleod was a key figure in Treaty Seven with the Stonies, Sarcee and Blackfoot nations.

A stamp in Canada’s four-stamp Ice Vessels set released on November 15, 1978 spoke for the Mounties’ marine division. The St. Roch (Scott #777) was built at North Vancouver for the force’s Arctic Patrol service in 1928.

On June 13, 1996, at CAPEX ’96, Canada Post released five stamps to mark the centenary of the Yukon Gold Rush. One of them paid tribute to the efforts of the legendary Sgt. Sam Steele who had a dominant role in law and order in the Yukon.

Canada - Scott #1737a (1998)
Canada – Scott #1737, seal tab, Scott #1736 (1998)

On July 3, 1998, a two-stamp issue fittingly traced 125 years of Mountie history. One stamp presents an officer in the NWMP uniform against a background scene of an NWMP meeting Stoney natives (Scott #1736). A tab between the stamps has a striking frontal image of the Musical Ride, which extends onto both stamps; a background maple leaf on the tab is framed by graduated red panels on each stamp, forming a Canadian flag. The second stamp features a portrait of a contemporary officer in working uniform against a photographic collage showing a fingerprint technician in a crime lab and an RCMP helicopter in motion against a city skyline (Scott #1737). A second tab bears the RCMP coat of arms.

Several Canadian stamps have a direct connection to the RCMP, including the July 3, 1975 Calgary centennial (Scott #667) which honored a city that started as a NWMP outpost. The Forts Across Canada booklet issued on June 28, 1985 includes Fort Whoop-up in Alberta (Scott #1054) which was the center for the illegal whiskey traders and Fort Walsh (Scott #1056), a NWMP outpost in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan.

Regina’s 100th anniversary was marked with a commemorative (Scott #967) on August 3, 1982. Like the Calgary stamp, it is not a Mountie stamp, but Regina, Saskatchewan was longtime headquarters for the force and the home of Depot Division where all recruits are trained today. The cachet of the first day cover for the Regina stamp depicts an NWMP member (in pillbox hat) and a modern-day Mountie.

One of the most colorful and distinguished scouts employed by the NWMP in 1874 was Jerry Potts (Scott #1432) who was on one of the four-stamp Canadian Folklore set in September 1992.

Flag of the RCMP
Flag of the RCMP

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