In Search of the "Perfect" Mountie
S.B. "Sam" Steele, ca. 1874, a Canadian hero, often regarded as the quintessential "Mountie"
The basic requirements, listed in Terms of Engagement, were not particularly rigorous, but at times it was difficult to join the NWMP because openings were few in number. At other times, especially in 1885 and 1886, a large influx of men often meant that standards were lowered. In other words, the "perfect" Mountie was elusive.
As early as 1880, Commissioner Acheson G. Irvine informed the government that, in his opinion, "the best class of men to recruit from are farmers, or young men from rural districts, accustomed to perform hard manual labour, who understand the care and treatment of horses."
NWMP doctors expressed concern that medical examinations in eastern Canada were cursory and that mere boys were being engaged. Dr. George Kennedy, for example, argued in 1882 that the minimum age should be 21. "Boys do very well for ordinary barrack routine," he reported to the commissioner, "but are of very little use when real service has to be performed."
The large influx of new recruits in 1885-1886 was necessary to meet the increasing demands of a growing population, but standards slipped and many men barely met minimum physical standards. Some were even unable to ride a horse! Jonas Wardell of Hamilton, Ontario was 23 years old when he engaged on October 30, 1885. He spent over 150 days on the sick list before he was discharged on July 6, 1887.
By the 1890s and the turn of the century, the NWMP could be more selective. On a recruiting drive to the Maritime provinces in 1900, only 140 men were accepted from 335 who had shown interest in joining.
Old barrack room, Division "A," Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, 1892
Aside from the medical examination, there was no real screening of potential recruits, no assessment of personal suitability or the modern "background" check. As a result, men who were fleeing the law actually joined the NWMP, but when their histories were revealed, they were dismissed.
Even as late as 1904, there was no guarantee that a new recruit would become a good policeman. On May 1904, two men joined the NWMP at Calgary, Alberta. George A. Watts, a lad from Brantford, Ontario, lasted all of 31 days.
Others were more successful. William Hocking, an immigrant from Cornwall, England, who had been in Canada only one year, joined at the same time as Watts. Hocking enjoyed a very successful career, including several years of service in the Yukon and overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, before being struck down by cancer in 1921.
The search for the "perfect" Mountie intensified in 1897, when it was announced that the NWMP would be part of Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations in London, England. Men were selected on the basis of good service in the past, but the most important criteria were height and overall physical presence.