OTD: Macdonald government proposes mounted police force for North-Western Territory

On today’s date in 1873, the government of former prime minister John A. Macdonald proposed an act to establish a mounted police force for the North-Western Territory, which was a major region of British North America until 1870.

Named for its location in relation to Rupert’s Land—the exclusive commercial domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1670-1870—the North-Western Territory included present-day Yukon; the mainland Northwest Territories; northwestern mainland Nunavut; northwestern Saskatchewan; northern Alberta; and northern British Columbia.

In 1867, Canada was made up of only four eastern provinces; however, three years later, on July 15, 1870, the government acquired Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, but opening the region to settlement required peaceful relations with Aboriginals as well as the suppression of the whisky trade. Army officials who surveyed the area recommended a force of 100-150 mounted riflemen to maintain law and order.

1873: THE ACT PASSES

The act eventually passed on May 23, 1873. Macdonald originally unveiled the new force as the “North West Mounted Rifles”; however, there were concerns about antagonizing both the U.S. population to the south and Aboriginal population at home, so the force was renamed the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) when it was officially established in 1873. It was a predecessor of today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

According to Library and Archives Canada, the general duties of the NWMP included:

  • establish law and order;
  • collect customs dues;
  • enforce prohibition;
  • supervise the treaties between First Nations and the federal government;
  • assist in the settlement process;
  • ensure the welfare of immigrants; and
  • fight prairie fires, disease and destitution.

A 1973 eight-cent stamp commemorates the NWMP’s “march west” alongside commissioner G.A. French.

NWMP, RCMP STAMPS

In 1935, Canada’s Post Office Department (now Canada Post) issued a 10-cent stamp depicting an RCMP officer on horseback. The horse and landscape were engraved by Harold Osborn, and the officer was engraved by Sydney F. Smith. The stamp was designed by Herman Herbert Schwartz.

In 1973, the Post Office Department issued another stamp, this with a face value of eight cents, featuring the NWMP’s “march west” alongside commissioner G.A. French.

It was the NWMP’s task to police about 777,000 square kilometres of wilderness in the Canadian north-west in an attempt to suppress the whiskey trade; calm the growing unrest among the Aboriginal population; and stamp out lawlessness in that vast territory.

“Fear of the Fenian raids from the south and the possibility of losing the West by default made it imperative that Canada quickly take official possession of the area. July 1874 saw three hundred raw recruits under G.A. French, the first commissioner, set out from Dufferin, Manitoba, across the plains to Old Man’s River in what is now southern Alberta. There they constructed Fort Macleod, named for the Assistant Commissioner,” reads a press release issued by the department in 1973.

“The rigorous trek … revealed in the men a stamina that augured will. Within a very few months the Indians came to sense the meaning of the scarlet tunic and the motto it represented: ‘Maintiens le Droit,’ ‘Uphold the Right.'”

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