The Popular Hero
Banff Detachment, Banff, Alberta, October 28, 1891
The North West Mounted Police was formed in 1873-74 to rid the Prairies of whiskey traders, to establish good relations with the First Nations in anticipation of increased settlement, and to demonstrate to Americans that the Northwest Territories, acquired in 1869, were indeed a part of Canada.
The immediate cause (or some say the excuse) for the new force was the Cypress Hills Massacre. On June 1, 1873, a group of drunken American wolf hunters opened fire on a group of Assiniboine people, killing at least 20 men, women, and children. When word spread east, it justified the federal government's creation of a police force to prevent the Canadian West from emulating the disorder in the American Wild West.
Keeping warm while keeping the peace. Town Station, Dawson, Yukon Territory, probably after 1900. (Second from left in the front row may be William Welsh, the famous detective of the Labelle-Fournier murder case. See Fighting Crime.)
After recruiting some 300 members, mostly in Ontario and Quebec, the small force made its now famous "March West" in the summer of 1874, and established a series of forts or posts in present day Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The new force carefully nurtured friendly relations with the First Nations. The liquor trade was less of a problem than anticipated. Treaties were signed with various tribes and soon a majority of First Nations settled on reserves. The situation became more complicated in 1877, with the arrival of several thousand Sioux warriors and their families from the United States led by the renowned Sitting Bull. The Mounted Police, through firm diplomacy and open dialogue, played a critical role in defusing what might have become a tense and even violent situation.
But trouble was brewing. With the disappearance of the buffalo and the creation of the reserve system, many First Nations and Métis people found it increasingly difficult to feed their families. A way of life, based on the buffalo hunt, was disappearing far more quickly than anticipated. The Canadian Pacific Railway extended across the Prairies in 1883-85, signalling the end of the old ways.