Canada's West was not subdued by military force; it was pacified by the police. The Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP), the original incarnation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), was charged with a daunting challenge: to bring law to defiantly lawless men and order to a chaotic land. Their success came against formidable hardship and is a remarkable story of determination and dedication.
In The Great Adventure, David Cruise and Alison Griffiths pay fitting tribute to the first troop of Mounties to trek across the endless wilderness that was the Prairies of the 1870s. Assembled at Toronto and hastily trained in two contingents, 274 officers and men departed Fort Dufferin for the Great March in July 1874. Their destination was a notorious whiskey trading post, Fort Whoop Up, some 900 miles across barren, mostly uncharted, and exceedingly hostile landscape. The march was a "swashbuckling, glorious, near-tragic, humorous, and often poignant adventure"; so is the book as a whole.
The purpose for the expedition was threefold: to pacify aggressive Indians, bring a halt to the whiskey trade, and police the Canadian border against feared American encroachment. In accomplishing these aims, the NWMP would serve the other great institutions of Canada's westward expansion, the Hudson's Bay Company, which wanted police protection against freebooting American traders, and the Canadian Pacific Railway, which required a police presence for security at the settlements that would spring up to service its progress. Louis Riel's Métis uprising of 1869 and the massacre of two hundred Indians by Americans who crossed into Manitoba at Cypress Hills in 1873 gave the dispatch of police a particular urgency.
Poorly prepared and ill equipped for the journey, the Mounties found their advance slowed and their supplies rapidly depleted as they confronted the Prairies. Recruits who had enlisted with high hopes for adventure and glory were sorely disappointed: "Granted, they'd had stampedes and storms and all the promised privation and more, but the heart-stopping thrills of the Wild West eluded them. Where were the whiskey traders, the gun fights, the buffalo, and most especially the Indians? Where was the romance?" Given the state of exhaustion to which they were reduced just by marching, it was undoubtedly lucky for them that they didn't come upon any enemies. Straggling along the trail in a rag-tag, indefensible line, the inexperienced troopers would have made easy pickings.
Relying largely on the diaries and letters of the participants, the pages of The Great Adventure ooze with the dirt, dust, sweat, thirst, fear, and loneliness of the men. This is not scholarly history, and some may object to the liberal use of dialogue in the place of narrative; this is history as story-telling, capturing the spirit and tenor of the moment. As we accompany the NWMP along the trail, we are treated to a fascinating cast of characters, including Jerry Potts, a half-breed guide who possessed "a doctorate in survival in a place where the only diploma you earned was your own hide"; Fred Bagley, resourceful, trail-wise, and, at fifteen, the youngest of the troopers; Major James Macleod, the deputy commissioner, whose compassion made him a favourite with the men; and Commissioner George French, fastidious and even Queeg-like in his behaviour.
These same events crop up again in the first of Dick Harrison's collection of Best Mounted Police Stories. This selection is an idealized account of "The Taking of Fort Whoop Up" from Norma Sluman's 1959 novel, Blackfoot Crossing. Though the peaceful surrender of the fort to Major Macleod is recounted without embellishment, the appearance of the men has been improved. Under-nourished and exhausted, they were nonetheless "dressed splendidly. Bright scarlet coats set off their white helmets; brass buttons and belt buckles sparkled." Far from the tatters they really sported by the time they reached Whoop Up, fiction would have it that the revered uniform that came to be so strongly associated with the NWMP somehow withstood all, a portent of the justice and order the force would bring to the West.
In Canadian literature, the Mountie's heroism is not individualistic, but consists in his embodiment of the established order, in his upholding of the Crown's law. This contrasts sharply with the notion of the American Western hero as a solitary figure who defends weak citizens against savage Indians and brutal outlaws. The Mountie's uniform is crucial to his identity because he doesn't act on his own, but on behalf of the law. His strength is less a function of his personality than of the institution of which he is only one member. This is wonderfully illustrated in Bertrand Sinclair's contribution, "Whiskey Smuggling". Here, a solitary Mountie calmly and resolutely confronts a gang out on the prairie. Upon finding a contraband barrel of whiskey, he proceeds to pour it onto the ground. Losing his temper and seeing his advantage, the gang's leader pulls a gun on the policeman, to which he stoically responds, "You can't buck the whole Force, you know, even if you managed to kill me. You know the sort of orders we have about this whiskey business. Put up your gun." Recognizing the truth of the Mountie's words and marvelling at his stone courage, the smuggler lowers his gun and invites him to join them for dinner. The Mountie graciously accepts.
Part of the force's unique culture lies in its blend of paramilitary organization with individual self-sufficiency. These characteristics both belong to the Mountie legend. From the organization the policeman draws his legitimacy, but from within himself he copes with trying circumstances. Working alone or in small groups, the Mountie has to be resourceful in handling the elements, as in "O'Brien's Doom", Joseph Gollomb's enthralling 1937 police procedural about how Constable Pennecuick reads the clues offered up by the snow to solve a murder in the Yukon.
Gun play is shunned in most Mountie stories. In contrast to the American shoot-em-up, which climaxes with a dramatic gun fight, the Mounties appear as avoiding resort to arms. In "The Arrest of Wild Horse", H.E.R. Steele has Hector Adair admonish his men "on no account to draw their revolvers." And in a short piece by John Mackie, the Mounties retreat from an attempt to arrest rowdy strikers rather than draw their weapons without an officer's explicit authorization.
Many Mountie stories are about the pursuit of a fugitive. Sometimes a co-operation develops between pursuer and pursued, in the face of bitter cold and debilitating distances. This is based on a somewhat romantic belief that the rugged men of the frontier-at least grudgingly-respected one another. In James Oliver Curwood's "The Law Versus the Man" of 1911, Mountie and criminal join forces to survive until they can reach shelter. Dated and unconvincing to our ears, it is, just the same, a gripping adventure.
The collection ends on a sombre note with H. J. MacDonald's moving "The Detachment Man", an account written in 1972 of the murder of Corporal Jack Willow, the lone Mountie in a small Saskatchewan town. Willow had had reason to fear a sudden spasm of violence, senseless acts that his heroism could not overcome. The values of RCMP culture are shown here to have changed little from what they were in the early days of the century. MacDonald, himself a former Mountie, describes detachment life thus:
"The men are transferred every two or three or four years, often from one end of the country to the other. They move from hell to hell or heaven to heaven, depending on their temperament, their skills, their ambitions, their luck. Their daily life can become chaotic, a life spun wildly from hour to hour on chance circumstances, unknown conditions, uncertain developments in the form of auto wrecks, smashed bodies, broken spirits, and both savage and ingenious spurts of criminality. It can be an arduous calling."
Harrison has done a commendable job in gathering a historically representative sampling of Mountie fiction. But this is a reissue of a book that first appeared in 1978. As it is, the most recent story is one by Rudy Wiebe, written in 1977. An effort to bring the collection up to date would have been worthwhile. For one thing, I would have been interested to see whether the Mountie of fiction has evolved into a more urban street cop on the model of the big city American police, much as the Mountie was once appropriated for the American-style Western. Still, this is a highly entertaining book.
Tod Hoffman is a Montreal writer and book reviewer.