Serving the Nation
The Potential for Violence
North West Mounted Police constable with Plains Indian, ca. 1874-1890
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald had started plans for a police force in the West in 1869. The force was to consist of 50 whites and 150 Métis. His plans changed after the Red River Rebellion of 1870 (also known as the Red River Resistance), in which Métis, led by Louis Riel, violently resisted the annexation of the territory and the potential threat to their rights.
The Mounted Police were eventually dispatched to the northwest to prepare the way for settlement and development. While planning for the force was already underway, the government was probably propelled into action by the massacre of Assiniboine people in Cypress Hills, near Fort Whoop-up, by a gang of American and Canadian hunters. Debate continues about the role of the massacre in the formation of the NWMP. Some suggest that the government's response helped to foster a useful legend that the NWMP was created to protect indigenous peoples from unscrupulous whites.
In any case, the immediate task of the NWMP was to defuse a potentially dangerous situation and to enforce Canadian law on the Prairies. The long-term interest of the federal government was, however, in securing treaties with the First Nations in order to proceed with plans to settle the West and construct a transcontinental railway. The relationship was fraught with mutual cultural misunderstanding and with paternalism on the part of the government. The NWMP played a significant role in the treaty-making process by gaining the trust and confidence of Native leaders. This was accomplished in a few short years with little or no violence, in sharp contrast to events in the United States.
It is important to note that, despite the Red River Rebellion and the Rebellion of 1885, the Métis played a significant role in nurturing the atmosphere of relative trust and harmony in which treaties were signed.
In September 1876, the Crown signed Treaty 6 with the Plains and Wood Cree. One year later, Treaty 7 with the Blackfoot Confederacy opened up large tracts of prairie, and the federal government could move ahead with plans for settlement and development.
Sitting Bull, Winnipeg, Manitoba, ca. 1885
Always conscious of events south of the border, the Mounted Police faced a daunting challenge in 1876-77, when 5,000 Sioux crossed the international border from the United States seeking the protection of "British" law. They were soon followed by Sitting Bull, who had led the massacre of General George Custer and the men of the 7th Infantry, U.S. Army, in July 1876 at Little Bighorn, Montana. The Canadian government welcomed the Sioux as political refugees, but greatly feared that their presence in Canada would be a magnet for other disaffected indigenous groups in the western U.S.
Inspector James M. Walsh, one of the first NWMP officers to meet with Sitting Bull and other Sioux, was very respectful of First Nations leaders. But he was also conscious of the fact that the Sioux greatly outnumbered the NWMP. With carefully chosen words and a firm hand, Walsh emphasized that they could stay as long as the law was respected. And it was. The Mounted Police were impressed at how law-abiding the Sioux were, even when forced to exist by snaring mice and gophers. The government in Ottawa, under no obligation to assist the Sioux, was anxious to see them leave the country. In 1881, the Mounted Police were entrusted with the responsibility to see that Sitting Bull's Lakota Sioux returned to the U.S. This happened.
In the meantime, the federal government decided that First Nations groups should be removed from the vicinity of the international border. In the spring of 1882, more than 1,000 Assiniboine and Cree were camped in the area near Fort Walsh. They had moved there to hunt and to have access to food rations. The lack of any food support made them reject the reserve proposed to them, far to the north at Battleford. Commissioner Acheson G. Irvine resolved the issue by assembling a large caravan of supplies and entrusting the movement of the people to Constable Daniel "Peach" Davis. Although only 23 years old, Davis was later described as "a sinewy, weather-beaten and hardy" constable.
He proved persuasive. On May 24, they pulled out of the Fort Walsh area and arrived at Battleford on June 15 without serious incident. It was one of the most unusual incidents in the history of NWMP relations with First Nations and underlines the fact that the police generally had great respect for the First Nations, a respect that was reciprocated time and time again.
Settlement on the reserves was taking place at the same time as the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. If anything symbolized the disruption, even destruction, of the Aboriginal way of life, it was the railway. It was a difficult time for First Nations and Mounted Police alike, but despite all the dislocation and uncertainty, the Prairies were relatively peaceful until 1885.