Answering the Call
Group of officers, 1888. Standing: Inspectors Routledge, Wattam, Moffatt, Norman, Cotton, MacPherson. Seated: Superintendent Jarvis, Inspector Constantine and son.
In the fall of 1873, the federal government decided that a police force would be organized for the Northwest Territories. From then to the end of June 1904, when the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) became the Royal North West Mounted Police, more than 4,200 men served in its ranks. For many, it was an adventure not to be missed. While a good number made policing a career, others served for a brief time and returned to civilian life, settling in western Canada as farmers or ranchers or as owners of small businesses.
When word went out in the fall of 1873 that the government was looking for recruits for a mounted police force for the Northwest Territories, filling the ranks was not difficult. Of the first 300 men, more than half were Canadian born, 115 from Ontario alone. A number of British- and Irish-born men, several Americans, and a small number of Europeans also heeded the call.
Experience in policing was not and never would be a prerequisite for acceptance in the NWMP. The "originals" (those recruited in 1873 and 1874) included a large number of men with experience in the British Army, Canada's Permanent Force, or the militia. They were joined by almost an equal number of civilians: farmers, clerks, students, skilled tradesmen, labourers, two policemen, and one bartender. This profile would change little over the course of the history of the NWMP.
Special constables, often First Nations people or Métis, were regularly employed as scouts and guides beginning with the "March West" in the summer of 1874. Jerry Potts is the best known, but Louis Léveillé, his two sons and his brother Paul all scouted for the Mounted Police. Special constables were not regular members of the NWMP. They were not engaged as regular members, were not issued kit and clothing, and often had a limited law enforcement role. (See also "Protect and Enforce: First Nations" in "Serving the Nation.")
Letter of application to the North West Mounted Police, July 1876, from G.E. Cusick of Brockville, Ontario
Terms of Engagement
Every man who wished to join the North West Mounted Police had to meet certain criteria. These changed little from 1873 to 1904, and were as follows:
- Applicants had to be at least 18 years of age and not over 40, "active able-bodied men of thoroughly sound constitution."
- Applicants had to be able to read or write English or French and (important!) "must understand the care and management of horses, and be able to ride well."
- Married men need not apply.
Physical requirements were clear. Recruits had to be at least 5 feet, 8 inches (173 cm) tall, with at least a 35-inch (89-cm) chest, and must weigh no more than 175 pounds (80 kg). If accepted, the recruit had to submit a medical report, identify his next-of-kin, and take an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria and the oath of office. In the latter, the recruit swore to "well and truly obey and perform all lawful orders and instructions which I shall receive as such without fear, favour or affection of or towards any person or party whosoever."
Recruits joined, or, to use the NWMP term, "engaged," for a specified number of years, or term, usually three or five years. Men in the first contingents signed on for a period of three years. When their terms expired, many took their discharge. They were perhaps encouraged by the fact that the government offered them a grant of 160 acres of Dominion land in western Canada. This generous provision for those who completed their term of service was rescinded by 1880. Men who sought to re-engage at the expiry of their term could, and often were allowed to, sign up for another term, often for one to five years.
As men took their discharges, the NWMP needed large numbers of recruits on an annual basis. In 1879, for example, about 80 new men arrived at NWMP headquarters, then located at Fort Walsh. They were followed by approximately 100 the next year. In January 1882, the government authorized an increase of 200, most from Ontario.
Before the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, recruits traveled to Fort Walsh via the United States. Members of the 1882 contingent, for example, were assembled at Toronto. After a train journey to Sarnia, they took a lake steamer to Duluth, Minnesota. From there they went by train to Bismarck, North Dakota. The paddle-wheeler Red Cloud then took them on the long and adventurous voyage up the Missouri River to Fort Benton, Montana. They then traveled overland in ox carts to Fort Walsh. It was a harrowing journey. At least two men lost their lives, and about a dozen had second thoughts and deserted en route to the West.
As early as 1883, a temporary recruiting depot was established at Winnipeg, but most new recruits were engaged in eastern Canada. In 1885, the strength of the Mounted Police was increased by 608 to a total of 1,039 men of all ranks. Most of these men were recruited east of Manitoba. By the 1890s, however, most recruits came from the Prairie provinces, although from time to time recruiting drives were held in central Canada and the Maritimes.