Since its inception, the RCMP has played an important role in colonization as well as the repression of social movements. It was first established as the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873 to extend government control over the North West Territories (Saskatchewan & Manitoba). This followed the 1870 Red River Rebellion by Metis in present-day Manitoba.
The NWMP were modelled after the Royal Irish Constabulary, a colonial police force used by the British for counter-insurgency in Ireland. The British based other police forces in India and Africa on the RIC as well (the RIC were renamed the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1920 and gained a notorious reputation as an instrument of British rule). Like the RIC, the
‘Mounties’ were organized as a paramilitary force, with military ranks, organization, weapons, and uniforms. They would be later recognized as a Dragoon regiment and permitted to carry a flag with their ‘battle honours’ on it.
In 1874, the NWMP carried out a gruelling westward trek across the prairies to establish a series of forts, as far west as Edmonton & Calgary by 1875. Dubbed the ‘Long March’ (sounds like Maoism), this story quickly became part of the force’s mythology, an inspiring example of courage & determination against overwhelming odds. Some participants, however, described it as disorganized, badly planned, and narrowly avoiding disaster. The column became lost, suffered starvation, harsh thunderstorms, and infestations of mosquitos.
Another part of the RCMP’s mythology is that the NWMP was deployed to stop evil American whiskey traders crossing the border, and to protect Native peoples from their depredations. A May 1873 attack by US traders on a group of Crees, dubbed the Cypress Hills Massacre, was used as a pretext to officially organize the NWMP in August of that year.
This official history, however, fails to account for the ongoing genocidal war the US was then waging against the Plains tribes, including the extermination of the Buffalo. Canada had just formed as a nation-state in 1867 with the British North America Act and was no longer a British colony. Although British military forces remained in the country, Canada had little military capacity to wage a similar scale of warfare against Indigenous nations on the Prairies. Yet, the decimation of the Buffalo herds that crossed into the US, as well as disease epidemics, were severely weakening the once-powerful Plains tribes on the Canadian side of the border.
Although Canada could not afford to mobilize a large military force, it could organize a paramilitary police force to establish lines of communicaiton throughout the region. When necessary, a larger militia force could also be deployed (as would occur in 1885). At this time, the government sought to impose control over the region in preparation for further colonial expansion, including a cross-country railroad system and greater agricultural settlements. All of this required security & stabililty (colonial law and order). In particular, Native peoples were to be coerced into submission, exploiting the effects of the US’ genocidal war against the Plains Natives. According to an account written by RCMP historians,
“When the Mounted Police first arrived in the West, their goal was to police the process of settling the Indians on the reserves. That accomplished, the Force was tasked with patrolling the line of construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway to protect the project from disruption.”
(Red Coats on the Prairies, p. 14)
On the prairies, the NWMP were closely involved in the making of treaties, including the 1877 Treaty No. 6 (covering the northern Prairies, including Cree, Anicinabe, and Assiniboine), as well as Treaty No. 7 (covering the southwest, including the Blackfoot, Bloods, and Peigans). These treaties gained the legal surrender of vast tracts of land, in exchange for reserves and annuities (annual gifts of food, equipment, and cash). In many areas, villages were on the brink of starvation, conditions which persisted for many more years.
Through the 1876 Indian Act, Natives came under the imposed jurisdiction of the federal government and were to be confined to reservations and forced to accept band councils. The NWMP enforced these and other provisions of the Indian Act, including the pass system (required to travel on and off reserve), as well as the suppression of warrior societies and spiritual ceremonies (such as the Sundance and give-aways). It was common for the police to imprison Natives that violated these provisions for several months and force them to carry out hard labour, with older persons frequently dying within months of their release. The NWMP (and later RCMP) were also used to force Native children into Residential Schools, even though it was clear many were dying from disease and abuse.
In 1885, the NWMP were used to repress the North West Rebellion of Cree & Metis warriors (inc. Louis Riel, Poundmaker & Big Bear). After being forced to retreat and watch as Hudson’s Bay Company posts were looted, Indian Agents, militia, & settlers killed, the NWMP were reinforced by some 5,000 militia. They were transported by the CPR railroad and provisioned by the HBC, during their campaign.
Ten years later, small-scale conflicts continued, often arising from the living conditions on reserves. Almighty Voice, a Cree warrior, shot and killed three NWMP officers after being arrested for allegedly killing a settler’s cow. He escaped and found sanctuary in various villages. The police hunted him for two years, and he was killed in a shootout in 1897 when the police opened fire with a 7 pound cannon.
In 1897, a regional newspaper commented that, “It is only the presence of large numbers of police in the country which keep the Indians in order… They remain submissive simply because they have the sense enough to know that in the presence of a large armed force, any other attitude would be disastrous to them.”
(Macleod Gazette, June 4, 1897, quoted in Red Coats on the Prairies, p. 70)
In 1900-02, NWMP officers were given leave to serve in the Second Boer War in S. Africa, fighting for the British Empire (and were later honoured with the attachment of ‘Royal’ to their title). Two units, the Canadian Mounted Rifles and Lord Strathcona’s Horse, were staffed primarily by serving or former officers of the NWMP. Their primary task was counter-insurgency.
During World War 1, a squadron of officers served in Western Europe battlefields, and in 1918 another squadron was deployed to Siberia as part of a Western expeditionary force against the Russian Revolution. In 1919, the NWMP participated in the attack on the Winnipeg General Strike, opening fire and killing two workers, wounding dozens of others. In 1920, the NWMP was merged with the Dominion Police to create the RCMP. In 1924, the RCMP were used to impose a band council on the Six Nations reserve in southern Ontario, which had resisted the Indian Act since its inception. During the inter-war years, the RCMP conducted repression of workers, the Communist Party & immigrants (i.e., Chinese & Ukranian). In 1935, they attacked the On-to-Ottawa Trek in Regina, which ended in a riot, with one cop and one protester being killed.
During the 1950s, the RCMP continued its repression of social movements under the pretext of the ‘Cold War’ and anti-communism. During the 1960s and ’70s it was especially active in countering social movements in Quebec, eventually leading to the disbandment of the SS in 1984 after its campaign of illegal burglaries, wiretaps, and even arson, were revealed.
During Native blockades of the 1970s and up until today, with the exception of Ontario & Quebec, it is the RCMP that is most often tasked with their repression. In some cases this involves symbolic arrests during acts of ‘civil disobedience’, but at others it can involve violent assaults and the use of heavily-armed Emergency Response Teams (ERT).
In 1988, over 200 RCMP invaded the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake during a raid against ‘illegal’ tobacco smuggling. During solidarity actions with the 1990 Oka Crisis, St’at’imc railway blockaders in Seton Portage, BC, were attacked by RCMP batons and dogs. Months later, over 60 road-blockers at Mt. Currie were violently arrested by a large force of RCMP. At Oka itself, the RCMP reinforced the Quebec Provincial Police (SQ).
In 1995, over 450 RCMP, including numerous ERTs, laid siege to a Native Sundance camp in the southern-interior region of BC (Gustafsen Lake/TsPeten). Police fired thousands of rounds, detonated an explosive charge as a defender’s vehicle drove over it, and used 9 Bison APC’s supplied by the military. It was the largest paramilitary operation in Canadian history.
In 1997, the RCMP were tasked with providing security for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vancouver. They carried out a widespread campaign of surveillance & harassment against social movements, ending in an unprovoked attack on student protesters during the summit itself. Scores were pepper-sprayed, batoned, and arrested, some for simply holding signs against APEC.
In 1998, RCMP on the Tsuu-T’ina reserve in Alberta shot & killed Connie Jacobs and her 9-year old son Ty, after the distraught mother attempted to prevent the seizure of her children by arming herself with a shotgun.
In 2000, the RCMP along with officers from the Department of Fisheries & Oceans, conducted harassment, surveillance and assaults against Miqm’ak lobster fishermen in Burnt Church, New Brunswick.
In 2001, the RCMP were tasked with security for the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Prior to the protests, officers conducted widespread surveillance & harassment of social movements for several months. During the protests in April, the RCMP & SQ riot squads fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, and hundreds of rubber bullets, over the course of two days.
In 2002, the RCMP shared information with US authorities that resulted in the imprisonment & torture of Maher Arar in Syria for over a year (a case of rendition). Years later, the head RCMP commissioner was forced to resign after the role of the RCMP was revealed.
In 2002-03, the RCMP along with ERT were involved in a series of raids on Indigenous warriors on southern Vancouver Island, Neskonlith, and Bella Coola, BC.
The reputation of the RCMP, once a ‘proud’ national symbol of Canada, has continued to decline over the last decade with more controversies, including killings & assaults. One of the more recent & well known of these being the murder of Polish citizen Robert Dziekanski, who died after he was tasered & assaulted by RCMP at Vancouver International Airport.
Red Coats on the Prairies: the Northwest Mounted Police 1886-1900, by William Beahen & Stan Horrall & Centrax Books, Print West Publication Services, Regina, Saskatchewan 1998