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The Role of Canadian Northwest Mounted Police, Research Paper Example

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Introduction

An overriding myth in Canadian legislative thinking is that the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) facilitated a nonviolent platform for legal, economic, and political advancement. The myth has also been disputed on the grounds that it has principally been perpetuated through certain biased perspectives of British colonizers (Ennab, 1993; Nettelbeck et al. 2016). In 1873, Ottawa revitalized the notion of coming up with federal police, as part of an arrangement to oversee the North-West Territories. What followed was the passage of Act that established a force in May that year by the parliament. The new police force was given the name North-West Mounted Police (NWMP). The force had a centralized system of government and was purposely designed to administer the North-West territory, other than across the entire Canada, which was a British colony. In this paper, the focus is placed on the history of policing in the prairies of western Canada (Jones et al., 2014). Being a British colony, the region experienced significant difficulties in the settlement expansion attempts during the later nineteenth century. Having become part of the British Colony comparatively late in the chronology of the British Empire, there was a concern as to whether the Indigenous people in the prairies of western Canada would be open to complying with British law. It is on this basis that the colonial government sought to rely on mounted police forces to oversee the implementation of British law in these territories and to facilitate the development of the agricultural economy by means of land acquisition (Nettelbeck, A. & Smandych, 2010). This paper examines the role of the NWMP in the context of frontier development. Essentially, it takes the position that the NWMP served as a positive instrument of nation-building, and ensured the rule of law, political stability, and economic development that facilitated Canadian sovereignty. In which case, the NWMP should not be viewed partially as being a colonizing agent that merely served to suppress Indigenous cultures and livelihoods, as it did also protected the interests of Indigenous people.

NWMP’s role in promoting the rule of law and political and economic development

Being an administrative instrument of the British Empire in the frontiers of European settlement, the NWMP was basically a representative of a rule of law. It practically countermanded Indigenous dominion and customary laws and facilitated the British occupation of the settlements. From its onset in 1873, it was a paramilitary force that recruited personnel with some military background, despite holding the civil role of enabling a seamless pathway to colonial settlement. At the same time, it is worth acknowledging that the NWMP played a crucial law enforcement role in the new territories (Jones et al., 2014). As a representative of the evident independence of the colonial state, NWMP was responsible for implementing government policies on the Indigenous people in regions that were in the process of being secured for European settlement under the semblance of “protection.” Indeed, guided by the Colonial Office’s underlying principle of humanitarian since the early 1930s, the tenet of protection could be argued to have formed the first phase of bringing “civilization” to the Indigenous people. The protection principle was deeply entrenched in the colonial government’s plan for Indigenous communities at the onset of colonial settlement in Canada. This could be said to have been entrenched in the Canadian Indian policy that was set up through the 1870s (Nettelbeck et al. 2016).

Essentially, the NWMP took the ‘rule of law’ to the prairie regions of the west. In essence, it was delegated magisterial powers. Given that officers had to serve as “stipendiary magistrates” as well as “ex officio justices of the peace,” they were mandated to operate with or without the presence of regular courts. This also means that the NWMP was a self-sufficient or virtually an autonomous apparatus designed to serve the specific powers of carrying out colonial law, which could arrest as well as pass judgment to offenders, whether they were European settlers or Indigenous people (Jones et al., 2014). Indeed, it could be argued that the NWMP was designated many powers to an extent that in the context of isolation, it was a “separate government” on its rights. The NWMP, therefore, played a crucial role in enabling frontier development. Indeed, in the context of the frontier, there has been a tendency to define Canadian expansion towards the west as a form of “managed development” that was largely shaped by the efficiency of the mounted police in maintaining law and order and facilitating the territory’s efficient governance (Nettelbeck, A. & Smandych, 2010). Still, some historians have asserted that the Canadian west did by no means assume the likeness of the frontier. Instead, the Canadian Northwest Territories have traditionally been interpreted as being a separate region, which is essentially a ‘rural hinterland’ that is separate from eastern Canada through normal geographical borders. (Nettelbeck & Smandych, 2010). In the second half of the nineteenth century, the agricultural settlements in the territory could not be argued to have evolved as “a region of the first contact” as trading activities had existed from as far as the seventeenth century between Europeans and Indigenous people. Therefore, in 1874 when the mounted police marched west, it was expected to function as an instrument of carrying out justice. It had to facilitate the movement of courts, court officials, and the law to the west.

By providing an environment that facilitated economic development, the NWMP could be argued to have advanced west to provide protection to European settlers sprawling industries, including the cattle ranching industry. The police force could, therefore, be required to patrol the prairie regions of the west to support the penetration of entrepreneurial settlers deeper into the west. Indeed, as Nettelbeck and Smandych (2010) observe, “settlers who ‘paved the way’ complained constantly to the government about lack of police protection against Indigenous attacks on their property. A consequence was that all too often settlers had the facility to ‘take the law into their own hands’, exacting their form of frontier justice against Indigenous people beyond the eyes of the law.” From Nettelbeck and Smandych’s (2010) statement, it could, therefore, be asserted that the NWMP, besides facilitating the protection of the European settlers, also played a critical role in restoring order. This made sense to the Ottawa government, as NWMP was essential a mechanism designed to curtail civilian violence. There is indeed some historical evidence suggesting that the NWMP limited a tendency of European settlers to take up arms and defend themselves (Nettelbeck & Smandych, 2010). However, this may have only been to some considerable extent. In fact, there were some cases where NWMP officials could from time to arm themselves against Indigenous attacks in order to bolster their own security.

NWMP’s role in oppressing Indigenous people

On the other hand, the NWMP’s paramilitary function could be interpreted on several grounds. Being an apparatus of colonial administration, its fundamental function appears to have been to suppress Indigenous groups’ self-determination and to make them more compliant to colonial authority. Indeed, this interpretation challenges the old narrative that “the NWMP brought justice to red and white man alike.” For example, in their revolutionary yet comparatively significant history of the NWMP, some historians like Matt Soltys (2010, p.181) have presented contrasting perspectives. They have challenged the popularly promoted narrative that the NWMP was established to respond to the Cyprus Hills massacre of Assiniboine Indians in 1873 to bring justice to all, and to stamp out the pervasive influence of corrupt whiskey merchants. Earlier historians like John Bennett (1995, p.15), in their study of Canadian-American settlements in the west, had argued that the NWMP played a crucial role in bringing order at a time when there was a chaotic existence between European settlers and Indians. Bennett based his argument on some chaotic incidents in the west, such as the “Cyprus Hills massacre of Assiniboine Indians of 1873,” and the “Riel Rebellion of 1885.” In the Cypress Massacre, some Canadian and American outlaws shot a number of Assiniboine Indians who had camped at Cypress Hills near a whiskey-trading post. The event, as Bennett argues, prompted the Ottawa government to bring order by deploying the NWMP to the area because of fears that chaos could escalate. However, Soltys (2010, p.181) disputes such claims and argues that the NWMP was primarily established to control the Métis and Indian population of the western prairies, rather than to bring order between European settlers and Indians. The Métis and Indians were considered a real threat to the settlement of Canadian investors and industrialists. Jones et al. (2014) also argued that the history of the NWMP is counteracted by their missions of facilitating European settlement in the Canadian west, something that contributed to the existence of a hostile relationship between the mounting police and Métis peoples and First Nations people. Indeed, there are instances whereby the NWMP could mistreat Indigenous people to facilitate European settlements, including by taking Indian Women forcefully as wives. For instance, other historians like Walter Hildebrandt (2008, p.62-3) have disputed the fact that NWMP was designed to bring order. He regards NWMP as basically a tool for controlling Indians and explains that this is why some NWMP leaders like P.G. Laurie “paid little heed to the culture and society of those [the Indians] who had been there for hundreds of years before them” (p.63). He cites cases where the Indians were marginalized and treated as “savages,” “disloyal” and “criminal.” For instance, the NWMP did not permit marriage to Aboriginal people, despite taking some of them as wives in the late 19th century. There were also cases of abuse of Indian women by the NWMP, including a case of James Payne who beat a young Indian woman to death for visiting his Indian wife.

Indeed, as Evans (2006) acknowledges, such deeply entrenched negative attitudes towards the Indigenous people made it difficult to realize racial harmony. In spite of the modest attempts and justified intentions to bring about peaceful relations, such negative attitudes made it difficult to maintain “peaceful relations.” This contributes to the broader contestation that before and after the formation of NWMP, violence was a critical component of existence between the European settlers and Indigenous people in the Western Canadian frontiers. Yet, there is also evidence suggesting that NWMP was relatively peaceful and sympathetic to the state of the Indigenous people. For instance, Nettlebeck et al. (2016) argue that the NWMP’s first-hand experience of overseeing the Canadian frontiers in the west was fairly peaceful, as they tended to sympathize with them after they lost their lands. There is evidence to support this assumption. For instance, some NWMP officials acknowledged the fact that Aboriginal people had no choice but to attack the white settlers. Seemingly, the Aboriginal people were encumbered by starvation as their lands had been taken away by European settlers (Jones et al., 2014). Having been dispossessed of their lands, they could no longer engage in subsistence farming to provide for their livelihoods. Indeed, there are some records going as early as the 1850s. In which case, there appears to be little evidence suggesting that the NWMP used brutal force that could be used to blemish their repute for a comparatively nonviolent institution of Canadian sovereignty (Nettelbeck et al. 2016). A likely explanation for this is that the NWMP was assigned some discretional and magisterial authority, which provided them with the mandate to implement government Indian policy with an air of benevolence.

Clearly, beneath the policing and magisterial authority of the NWMP, they [the NWMP] facilitated the successful colonial occupation of Aboriginal lands. The process through which this happened entailed much more than disciplining of noncompliant Indigenous peoples by means of force or through a coercive application of the law. According to Nettelbeck et al. (2016), some early reports written by NWMP commissioners since 1850 indicate that the efficient manner through which the NWMP minimized violent conflicts could be disconnected to the use of force. Rather, it had more to do with an effective surveillance system that curtailed Indian mobility. With time, Indigenous people experienced greater difficulties accessing their traditional means of living as their lands had been taken away. Nettelbeck et al. (2016) argue that when such difficulties manifested in the 1870s, indigenous people were forced to seek the protection of the Queen’s law. However, to benefit from such laws, they had to submit themselves to the Canadian legal authority after realizing that they had overtly been suppressed into submission. Evidence to support this idea can be found in the report by Sub-Inspector Cecil Denny while commenting on a statement made by Blackoot chief Crowfoot:

“We are getting shut-in, the Crees are coming into our country from the north, and the White men from the south and east, and they are all destroying our means of living. But still… we will depend upon you to help us”” (Dempsey, 2015, p.76; University of Regina 1998, p.33).

Chief Crowfoot had reasserted a need for NWMP to coexist with the Blackfoot Indian people to ensure mutual benefit. This led to a pact between the NWMP and the Blackfoot people in 1876, whereby Blackfoot Indians would submit themselves to the Queen’s law. In turn, Denny wrote in his police report that Whenever Blackfoot people would be attacked on account of being subject to the Queen’s law and justice, they would guarantee  “Blackfoot the right of protection as well as any other subjects”  (University of Regina 1998, p.33).

Having necessitated such conditions, the NWMP managed to productively procure the support of Indigenous people. Some of them could even arrest members of their communities found to have failed to comply with the Canadian legal authority before turning them over to the NWMP. Clearly, throughout the 1870s after NWMP had enlisted the assistance of the Indigenous people, it preoccupied itself with policing Indian movements at the border of Canada, and the United States to capture groups of Indians found escaping from US troops. A continued flow of Indians escaping from US troops to the Canadian territory also posed a significant threat to the realization of colonial economic interests in the Canadian west. This called for a need for the NWMP’s intervention. For instance, after some intelligence that large bands of Indians from the US had entered the Canadian territory and pitched a camp at Wood Mountain, Walsh coordinated the NWMP to undertake continuous surveillance of the area (Nettelbeck et al. 2016).

Some historians like Nettelbeck and Smandych (2010) and Nettelbeck et al. (2016) have argued that NWMP’s strategy of facilitating the starvation of the Indigenous people became less efficient in the mid-1880s, as Indigenous people became used to their new lifestyles. This prompted a need to expand the NWMP force to more than 200 men, particularly after it emerged that more Indians were migrating from the US territory. Indeed, the NWMP acknowledged the fact that the starvation had hardened many Indians, and made them more aggressive.

Some historiographies have attempted to address the extent to which NWMP’s suppression of likely turbulence was influenced by the criminalization of Indigenous activities (Nettelbeck and Smandych, 2010; Nettelbeck et al. (2016). For instance, Nettelbeck and Smandych (2010) evaluated some forms of Indian offenses and punishments in the period 1878-1885 and observed that the NWMP approached livestock theft as an issue that was an absolute threat to colonial authority. Elofson (2000) and Knafla & Swainger (2001, p.96-7) also observed that although issues like cattle theft had not previously been policed because of the NWMP policy of a benevolent and moderate approach to Indigenous peoples, the NWMP eventually adopted the practice of protecting white sentiments against cattle theft in the 1880s when Indian starvation had worsened as “their standard procedure of policing.” Indeed, as Knafla & Swainger (2001, p.96) observe, the idea of “policing cattle theft was adopted as the standard police procedure” leading to an increased number of arrests of Indians, including 18 “Blood Warriors” during one police operation. From then on, arrest became a metaphor for NWMP authority indicating that they eventually abandoned their benevolent policies. These clearly indicate that the NWMP was in fact a tool for controlling Indians, rather than bringing law and order to all. Indeed, by facilitating the taking away of Indian lands, NWMP contributed to the starvation of the Indians, who were later forced into either slavery or cattle rustling.

Conclusion

To a greater extent, it can be established that the NWMP served as a positive instrument of nation-building. In effect, it ensured the rule of law, political stability, and economic development that facilitated Canadian sovereignty. It is NWMP’s policy of benevolence that enabled it to overcome the temptations of passing itself as a colonizing agent that could suppress Indigenous cultures and livelihoods, as it did also protected the interests of Indigenous people. Being an administrative instrument of the British Empire in the frontiers of European settlement, the NWMP was a representative of a rule of law. It practically countermanded Indigenous dominion and customary laws and facilitated the British occupation of the settlements without engaging in violence. The NWMP, therefore, played a crucial role in enabling frontier development. Indeed, in the context of the frontier, eventual settlement and growth of cattle industries in the west was an outcome of “managed development” that manifested due to the efficiency of the mounted police. The police force maintained law and order and facilitated the territory’s efficient governance. On the other hand, NWMP could be argued to have advanced to the west to provide protection to the European settlers sprawling industries, including the cattle ranching industry, at the expense of the Indigenous people. However, since there is no discernible evidence showing that the NWMP engaged violence to suppress Indians, it could be discerned that its commitment to the rule of law was steadfast.

References

Bennett, J. (1995). Settling the Canadian-American West, 1890-1915: Pioneer Adaptation and Community Building : an Anthropological History. Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press.

Brown, L., & Brown, C. (1973). An unauthorized history of the RCMP. Toronto, Canada: James Lorimer & Company.

Dempsey, H. (2015). The Great Blackfoot Treaties. Toronto: Heritage House Publishing.

Elofson, W. (2000). Cowboys, Gentlemen, and Cattle Thieves: Ranching on the Western Frontier. Toronto: McGill-Queen’s Press.

Ennab, S. (1993). Rupturing the Myth of the Peaceful Western Canadian Frontier: A Socio-Historical Study of Colonization, Violence, and the North West Mounted Police, 1873-1905. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.

Evens, S. (2006). The Borderlands of the American and Canadian wests: Essays on regional history of the forty-ninth parallel. Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press.

Hildebrandt, W. (2008). Views from Fort Battleford: Constructed Visions of an Anglo-Canadian West. Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press

Jones, N., Ruddell, R., Nestor, R., Quinn, K. & Phillips, B. (2014). First Nations Policing: A Review of the Literature. Regina: Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety.

Nettelbeck, A. & Smandych, R. (2010). Policing Indigenous peoples on two colonial frontiers: Australia’s mounted police and Canada’s North-West mounted police. The Australian And New Zealand Journal Of Criminology, 43(2), 356-375.

Nettelbeck, A., Smandych, R., Knafla, L. & Foster, R. (2016). Fragile Settlements: Aboriginal Peoples, Law, and Resistance in South-West Australia and Prairie Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Soltys, M. (2013). Tangled Roots: Dialogues Exploring Ecological Justice, Healing, and Decolonization. Ontario: Healing Earth Press.

University of Regina. (1998). The Mounted Police and Prairie Society, 1873-1919. Regina: University of Regina. Canadian Plains Research Center

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