On the Job
Sunrise to Sunset
Recruits at Regina, under the instruction of Riding Master, Staff Sergeant William D. Bruce, 1894
During the first years of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), after a recruit signed on, took his oaths of allegiance and office, and received his kit and clothing, he was posted to a division for training. After Depot Division was established for NWMP training in 1885, almost all new recruits received their training together at Regina. They were trained in Mounted Police practices, the law, rifle and small arms drill, and riding. Time spent at Depot varied depending on divisional needs for manpower. In the 1880s, a few weeks might suffice. By the 1890s, new recruits often spent three months or more at Depot before receiving their first posting.
But all the training and drill could never prepare a young Constable for the reality of day-to-day police life on the Prairies or in the Yukon.
NWMP Post, Banff, Alberta, 1888
From reveille at 5:50 or 6:00 a.m., to sunset, mounted policemen were on the job. They tended to their horses, kit, uniforms and living quarters. They took regular drill and instruction, tackled daily chores, completed reports and other paperwork, and were on call to investigate reports of crime or wrongdoing. After 1886, regular daily or weekly patrols were customary. These required additional work preparing for trips that might be a few kilometres or several hundred long.
Where They Were
Until the Rebellion in 1885, the Mounted Police concentrated their activities around a series of forts, including Fort Walsh, Fort Macleod, and Fort Calgary. By the late 1880s, the forts had either been abandoned or had grown into cities and towns with NWMP divisional headquarters. In 1889, for instance, Mounted Police divisions, each signified by a letter, were located in the following places:
- Maple Creek (A)
- Wood Mountain (B)
- Battleford (C)
- Fort Macleod (D)
- Calgary (E)
- Prince Albert (F)
- Fort Saskatchewan (G)
- Lethbridge (K)
- Regina (Depot)
Some members of Moosomin Detachment in prairie clothes, Moosomin, Saskatchewan, 1889
Each division was headquarters for a number of detachments, some of which operated year-round, others only in summer. Divisions would be realigned from time to time and detachments were opened and closed depending on settlement patterns and the need for a police presence in a particular area. The published annual reports of the NWMP carry a list of divisions and detachments, and the number of men assigned to each.
Not everyone was engaged in fighting crime; many were engaged to make life easier for those who did. For many years, the Mounted Police were self-sufficient, especially during the 1870s and early 1880s. This meant everything from growing their own food to building their living quarters, in addition to their other duties. Daily chores could include cutting hay, splitting firewood, and gathering produce. Patrols required considerable planning and preparation.
The NWMP employed few if any civilians prior to the turn of the century, as virtually everything was done by red-coated Mounties. In other words, some Mounted Police never investigated a crime, went on patrol or faced the dangers inherent in their work, as many of their fellow policemen so often did.
By the mid-1890s, some civilians were employed as cooks at larger divisional headquarters, and women were regularly hired to serve as matrons or escorts for female prisoners. But day-to-day work around a detachment was done by policemen, often referred to as "artisans": carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, shoeing smiths, barbers, tinsmiths, saddlers, painters, firemen, and even teamsters.
NWMP Association Rugby Team, 1896
Alexander Alexander joined the NWMP at Chatham, Ontario, on May 4, 1885 and remained in the Mounted Police until he retired in August 1922. Throughout his career, he worked as a farrier, caring for horses at Medicine Hat, Maple Creek, Regina, and Fort Macleod. During the Gold Rush, he plied his trade in the Yukon.
As soon as the Mounted Police settled themselves on the Prairies in the mid-1870s, the force recognized that they required a more varied diet than rations would allow. Small farming operations were established at the various forts and divisional headquarters to grow much-needed fresh vegetables, as well as oats and hay for the horses. The farms were usually successful, although the crops at Swan River were completely devoured by grasshoppers in the summer of 1876.
The farm at Battleford provided potatoes, beets, cabbage, lettuce, peas and other crops under the watchful eye of Constable Ridout. When he took his discharge in 1879, the garden was never again as abundant. Officers recognized the value of police-run farms, but at Wood Mountain, where the Mounted Police had a small number of cattle, concerns were raised in 1880 that maintaining the herd required one non-commissioned officer and three men.
Fresh food remained an issue until the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the growth of towns and cities on the Prairies, and the development of agriculture and a distribution system for goods and services. Many divisional headquarters and permanent detachments maintained gardens well into the 20th century. The Mounted Police also planted trees to make life on the prairie as pleasant and as comfortable as possible.