The Heritage of the RCMP
· 16 min. read
This article may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
“Why did you join the RCMP?” I asked retired officer Ken Fader, who served from 1959 to 1986.
Fader worked as a highway patrol officer in Saskatchewan during that time, minus a half dozen years when he worked in Ontario. When he wasn’t patrolling the highways, he was serving the First Nation reserves that dot the province, focusing mainly on crime prevention and enforcing peace. Fader now works as a guide at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Heritage Center in Regina, Saskatchewan.
His reasoning for joining is universal, and a variation of it can probably be used for every officer that has ever joined the force.
“I just wanted to make a difference.”
While the RCMP was created in 1920, they were originally named the Northwest Mounted Police and came into existence in 1873. The force had the prefix “Royal” added to it in 1904 by King Edward VII, and became the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. Their history is full of drama, rebellions, executions, conspiracies and double-agents, all of which is on display at the RCMP Heritage Center.
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald first began the creation of the force after Canada purchased “Rupert’s Land” (now Western Canada) from the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company. This land was larger than the current province of Canada, and would connect British Columbia to the rest of the country, spanning the whole continent. However, this land was inhabited by the Native Americans, whose way of life was under attack by American whiskey traders and their “fire water”.
Looking to create a cross-country railway, the American traders had to be removed and law over the First Nations had to be established. This is the NWMP’s first objective, and once they pinpointed Fort Whoop Up as their destination, the group of 300 soldiers was chosen. They would have to cover much of this distance on horse-back, and would have to travel a distance as far away as Moscow is from Paris.
The group’s first impression of the prairies is one of amazement. Journal entries express the awe and beauty they witnessed with the endless sky and rolling plains, but it wouldn’t take long to discover the deadly side of the prairies as they encountered summer storms and mosquitoes. Several times the mosquitoes would be so bad that horses would flee and dogs would just lie down and die.
After given incorrect maps, the group arrived at Fort Benton in Montana looking for help. They were guided back to Canada and to the location of Fort Whoop Up. However, when they arrived they found no whiskey. Confused and disappointed, the group went north and established their own fort, patiently waiting for any reports of the whiskey trade to turn up. In time, they captured several illegal whiskey traders, all of which had no connection to Fort Whoop Up. With these arrests and the presence of the NWMP, the whiskey trade vanished.
With the whiskey problem being eradicated, the NWMP began focusing their efforts on enforcing law. Relations between the NWMP and Native Americans went so well that they offered safety for Sitting Bull and thousands of Sioux from the US Army for several years. However, peace between the groups didn’t remain.
The Cree called the event “e-mayikamikahk”, or “where it went wrong”. The expansion of Canada westward frightened the Metis as they had already lost their home once after the events of the Red River Rebellion. Looking to claim the land as their home, they summoned the revolutionary Louis Riel out of hiding and the group began a war against government forces.
The role of the Cree during this time is misunderstood, and Ottawa believed it was the whole First Nation population that was uprising, not just the Metis. While the Cree were starving due to the decline of buffalo, they had no desire to go to war. Although there were several battles between the Cree and NWMP, these were driven by hunger and not as an act of rebellion.
In response to this uprising, Ottawa sent the army west and after several additional bloody battles, both the Metis and the Cree surrendered, and Riel was arrested. Riel was put on trial and was found guilty of high-treason. While the jury requested mercy, the judge sentenced him to death by hanging. He was hung at the NWMP Depot on November 16, 1885, just south of the RCMP Heritage Center. The Cree still have never forgave the government for this, as the government violated many of the peace treaties they signed just decades before.
With the Metis rebellion settled, the NWMP were sent north to the Arctic after the discovery of gold and the subsequent Klondike Gold Rush. Through their presence and their enforcement of the law, the gold rush was relatively peaceful and both American and Canadian prospectors praised the efforts of the force. Ottawa was planning on shutting down the NWMP during this time period, but the force had become so world famous that they decided to continue the program instead.
Two additional events occurred in the Arctic, the first being in 1910. Francis Joseph Fitzgerald and three other officers were to make a regular trip from Fort McPherson to Dawson, a short trip of 750 kilometers. Fitzgerald was competitive, and wanted to complete the trip in record time, so he left much of the food and equipment behind, confident he would not need it. During the trip, the group was subjected to horrible blizzards and bone chilling temperatures. Due to these conditions, the group spent nine days trying to find the pass which would lead them to Dawson. Reluctantly, Fitzgerald had to turn back and return to Fort McPherson. However, the group ran out of food and was forced to eat their sled dogs. Within a few days, their dogs had all died either from exhaustion or from hunger, while all the men either froze to death or committed suicide. Their bodies were found just miles away from Fort McPherson. This is known as the “The Lost Patrol”, and is Yukon’s greatest tragedy.
The second event occurred in the 1930s with a man named Albert Johnson, otherwise known as The Mad Trapper of Rat River. Who Johnson was and where he came from is unknown. When he arrived in the Yukon, he settled in a cabin on the edge of Rat River. When reports came that somebody was tampering with the traps in the area, Johnson was identified as a potential culprit. The RCMP found his cabin and attempted to speak to Johnson, but he refused to talk to them. When they received a search warrant, Johnson shot at them and struck one of the officers, forcing them to flee.
The officers returned again, this time with dynamite, determined to blow Johnson out of his cabin if needed. After destroying the cabin, Johnson began to shoot out at them from beneath the ruins. After a fifteen hour firefight in -60 conditions, the officers retreated. Their return was delayed by a blizzard, and when they did manage to reach the cabin again, Johnson was gone.
They managed to catch up to him, but after another firefight and an officer being killed, the group fell back. They enlisted local guides to help with the manhunt, as the officers believed Johnson planned to leave the Yukon. In response, they blocked off both passes of the Richardson Mountains. This didn’t stop Johnson, however, as he simply climbed the 7,000 foot mountain and disappeared in the brush.
In desperation, the RCMP hired air support to find Johnson, and it was discovered he was following caribou trails which allowed him to cross bodies of frozen water without snowshoes on. Air support told the RCMP where Johnson was headed, and the officers confronted him. Another firefight began, but this one ending with an officer being shot and Johnson being killed.
Nobody claimed the body, nor claimed to have known Johnson. His true name is unknown, his country of origin is unknown, and nobody can explain how he could cover 137 kilometers in three days in the deadly Arctic on foot.
During World War II, the RCMP had their very first double-agent, a Nazi spy named Werner von Janowski. Janowski arrived in Canada via a German U-Boat in Chaleur Bay, Quebec, with his final destination being Montreal. He stopped in New Carlisle for the night before taking the train the next day, but the hotel manager seemed suspicious of him due to inconsistencies in his story. Once Janowski paid with an out of circulation bank note, the hotel manager called local law enforcement. They managed to catch Janowski on the train, and before searching his luggage, he admitted to being both a Canadian and German spy. Inside his luggage they found a powerful radio transmitter, and was sent to Britain where he remained for the rest of the war. Here, it is rumored, he sent false messages to Germany under the watch of MI5 and the RCMP. He would die in Spain in 1978.
It wasn’t just Nazi spies the RCMP had to contend with, but Soviet spies as well. After World War II in 1945, Igor Gouzenko worked as a cipher clerk for the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. After hearing about how his family was being treated back home, Gouzenko packed a suitcase full of code books and deciphering materials regarding the Soviet’s efforts to steal nuclear secrets and approached the RCMP. They refused to believe his story, so he approached the Ottawa Citizen. They also rejected his story. He returned to his apartment that night, but feared he was being watched so he spent the night at the apartment across the hallway. That night, Gouzenko watched as undercover Soviet agents broke into his apartment in an attempt to kill him. They only left when approached by the Ottawa police, who were monitoring his apartment from across the street.
The next day Gouzenko once again approached the RCMP and was transported to “Camp X”, where he was interviewed by the MI5 and the FBI. While the RCMP expressed interest in Gouzenko, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wanted nothing to do with him, claiming that Russia was a wartime ally. Against the Prime Ministers order, these documents found their way onto the hands of Louis St. Laurent, Canada’s next Prime Minister. “It was like a bomb on top of everything else”, King wrote in his diary. What happened next is unknown, as King’s diary from November 10 to December 31, 1945 has gone missing. This is the only diary from 1893 to 1950 which has not been accounted for.
As for Gouzenko, he obtained a new name by the RCMP and lived in Toronto. He often appeared on television to promote his two books and grievance about the RCMP, always with a hood over his face. He died in 1982 from a heart attack in Mississauga.
Since the Gouzenko Affair, the RCMP has also been involved in the FLQ and Oka Crisis. In regards to international security, they have been superseded by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), but they are still apart of national security and the protection of the Canadian way of life. Today they focus on fighting organized crime, drug and sex trafficking, illegal diamond trade and terrorism, both within Canada and abroad.
The RCMP have changed a lot since the 300 person cavalry headed West to Fort Whoop Up, but are still very active in the lives of Canadians. From protecting us from everything from Soviet spies to drunk drivers, the RCMP are an iconic symbol of Canada, and to the countless officers who have worked in her ranks, Ken Fader included, Canada is their heritage.
If you are interested in learning more about the RCMP or the RCMP Heritage Center, please drop by their website.
Categories: Canada, History, Regina, Saskatchewan