Come From Abroad
David H. MacPherson, after 1888
The NWMP never lacked for recruits. By the mid-1880s, many men from the British Isles joined up, no doubt enticed by the romantic notion of policing, a trend that would continue until the First World War.
John Donkin is a good example. When he failed to gain acceptance to medical school, he turned to journalism and finally, after several years in the British Army, he immigrated to Canada in 1884 and joined the Mounted Police. In 1888 he took his discharge and returned to England where he wrote one of the few first-hand accounts of life in the NWMP, Trooper and Redskin in the Far North-West: Recollections of Life in the North-West Mounted Police, 1884-1888 (1889). Donkin was impressed with the variety of men he met during his service, describing them as "all sorts and conditions of men." They ranged from British gentry to an unnamed contortionist and clown!
Signing up could be competitive. Potential recruits or their families drew attention to family and political connections to improve their chances. Men with existing connections to the NWMP -- a father, uncle, or brother in service, perhaps -- were often favoured.
When members were killed in the line of duty, the NWMP often accommodated sons or brothers. Marmaduke Graburn was shot and killed in November 1879, the first mounted policeman to be murdered in the line of duty. His younger brother was accepted soon afterwards as a recruit, but unfortunately he died en route to the Prairies.
Patrick Burke was an original member of the Mounted Police and by 1885 he held the rank of constable. He was killed at the Battle of Cut Knife Hill during the 1885 Rebellion, leaving a wife, five sons (all of whom were eventually engaged in the Mounted Police), and a daughter.
Taking His Discharge
At the end of his term of service, the member could elect to take his discharge ("time expired") or seek re-engagement. If he had a clean record and if his commanding officer had not found him inefficient, he could sign up for another term, often one year at a time. He retained his rank from one engagement to another unless the break in service was significant. To encourage good members to re-engage, men were often granted up to two months leave.
Ronald William Bruce of Guelph, Ontario was engaged on April 25, 1885 for a term of five years. He served in the later stages of the North West Rebellion and was promoted corporal and sergeant. When his initial term expired on April 24, 1890, he re-engaged for one year and was promoted staff sergeant as a riding instructor at Depot Division. He accepted one-year terms in 1892 and 1893 and a three-year term in 1894, finally taking his discharge on April 24, 1897.
Others simply finished their term and left the service. A board of officers met, reviewed and summarized the individual's service, assessed his overall conduct, and issued a formal discharge certificate. Men often took their discharge in order to return east or to take up farming or ranching in the West, only to change their minds, and months or even years later ask to re-engage with the Mounted Police. Good former members were re-engaged, especially if they met the age requirement and were in good health.
Not all men found policing to their liking and/or could face a three- or five-year term on the Prairies. Some members, close to the end of their term of service, were allowed to purchase their discharge by paying a certain sum for each month of service remaining. The practice was not encouraged; those seeking to "purchase" out were often forced to wait for months for a decision from the commissioner's office or from the comptroller in Ottawa.
Others took more desperate measures to leave -- deserting, back to eastern Canada or south to the United States. Desertion was a perennial problem in the NWMP. Every year, division commanders reported that one or more men had opted out. Henry Bartram had been a mounted policeman for 18 months when he was granted a pass to visit Winnipeg. He never returned.
According to historian Rod Macleod, between 1879 and 1889, some 488 men deserted from the Mounted Police. Many were apprehended, jailed for a time and summarily dismissed, although in one known case, the deserter, Philip Williams, was reissued his uniform and kit and told that he had to remain in the service to make up lost time.
David Macpherson's career was stranger still. With assistance from his father, Sir David Macpherson who sat in Sir John A Macdonald's cabinet, the young Macpherson engaged on June 25, 1880. He deserted four months later. Three years later (and perhaps at the insistence of his family), he surrendered, spent six months in jail, and resumed his duties in May 1884. He was promoted sergeant in 1887. On September 1, 1888, Macpherson was granted a commission as an inspector. He retired on a pension in September 1897.
Members who ran afoul of the rules and regulations were disciplined harshly. They were often jailed and subsequently dismissed.