Friday, May 24, 2013

140 Year Old Icon of the Canadian West

In 1873, Canada's first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, saw the need to wave the flag in our western territories lest they be taken over by the United States. His first thought was to create a cavalry regiment, but there was some concern that our neighbour might take that too personally. Instead he created the North West Mounted Police.

This could well have been one of the defining moments in Canadian history since we are probably the only country whose most famous national symbol is a police force.

The "new" red serge uniform with Stetson.
A small force of 300 men went west to bring peace, order and good government to the territory that would become the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Later, Sam Steele and his contingent of the NWMP would do the same in the Yukon during the gold rush.

As respected as the NWMP were in the Prairies and Klondike, in Ottawa there was a push to disband the force as the west became more settled. This movement ended in 1897, at Queen Victoria's Jubillee parade in London.
"A contingent from the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) was rear guard to the Canadian section. This sparked a number of unfavourable comments from the London press. Placing them at the rear must have been a blunder, reported one paper, as they were a star attraction, resplendent in their red serge uniforms and western-style Stetson hats. The British and Canadian press praised their physical appearance, their riding, and their general demeanour. The NWMP, by their mere presence, had captured the imagination of Londoners."
  ("A Glorious Moment" The Popular Hero, Collections Canada)

What London discovered in 1897 had already been gleened by novelist Gilbert Parker in 1893. His The Patrol of the Cypress Hills, set the standard for descriptions of the NWMP in literary and movie fiction

Hollywood loved the Mounties, from Tom Mix in the silent films, to Rose-Marie and it's famous "Indian Love Call" duet. However, as film critic Don Miller observed:
"Hollywood never did right by the mounties. The challenge was there, with unlimited opportunities for adventure with fresh, picturesque locales; a group of law enforcers with a noble, proud and inspiring tradition, not to mention their distinctive redcoats; and the potential of blending rugged, Western-type action with, to non-Canadians, a tinge of the exotic allure of a foreign country. With everything at their disposal, the movies generally blew it."
("Trails North" Hollywood Corrals, 1976)

Flawed as they were, those movies are as much a part of the "Mountie" mystique as the more accurate, albeit tongue in cheek portrayals in Due South and Gunless. The fictional stories - whether in print or film -  are as much part of the heritage of the RCMP as Sam Steele and almost as iconic as the Musical Ride.


Jacquie Rogers said...

The RCMP is truly an amazing force, one that actually lives up to its reputation--a rare thing.

And to think, each Mountie's territory (at least on the West Coast) was double or triple the size that any of the US Marshals had to cover. Not to mention that many criminals on the lam headed up north. Indians, too. The RCMP had quite a mix of social and political problems to solve, but they did it and are still at it.

Alison E. Bruce said...

So true Jacquie. Even now, the RCMP are contracted to police communities in the west and northwest in addition to their mandated duties in Federal jurisdictions (including embassies). They really get around.

Ciara Gold said...

I love hearing about the Canadian old west as I really don't know that much about it so thanks for posting the information.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I don't know much about the Canadian West either and really ought to find out more. My mom was Canadian, so it should be a moral obligation. :-)

There've been a couple of tv shows of more than ordinary appeal, at least to me, that featured Canadian vs. U.S. differences. One had a goody two shoes Mountie who came to the U.S. in an official capacity for a reason I forget. Another had a U.S. tv news guy who did something that meant he couldn't get a job in the U.S., and he ended up in Western Canada (PBS comedy). Wish I could remember the titles.

mesadallas said...

You could almost substitute movies from Don Miller's quotes and use romance writers. I've come across a few romance novels with Mounties as heroes but not as many as you might think. Don't know why- Mounties are sexy as heck and they make great hero material.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Ellen, my mother was born and raised in England and learned more about Canadian history than the average Canadian student. We were taught more English and American history than anything else. It took the Alliance Atlantis series BORDERTOWN to get me excited about the Canadian west and Canadian history.

I'm betting the show with the goody-two-shoes Mountie was DUE SOUTH, starring Paul Gross. I loved that show.

Unknown said...

I recently bought DVDs of the Western TV series "Bordertown" (about a Mountie and a US Marshal sharing jurisdiction of a town on the US-Canadian border), and I'm loving it all over again! Very interesting post, Alison!