Serving the Nation
Protect and Enforce: First Nations
Camp scene of Métis people with carts on prairie, Manitoba, 1874
Considerable effort went into protecting First Nations, especially from the harmful effects of liquor, which had been so demoralizing to Native people. Also, while most First Nations people were law-abiding, crimes such as horse theft and cattle rustling were endemic, and the NWMP presence acted as a deterrent. In many areas of the Prairies, the reserves were simply not viable, largely due to the failure of federal agricultural policy with regard to First Nations people, who were starving as a result. The Mounted Police issued emergency rations when needed, and were generally sympathetic to the plight of the First Nations.
At the same time, the Mounted Police were obligated to enforce the laws of the land and Department of Indian Affairs regulations. The latter were particularly difficult for the Mounted Police. Customs such as the Sun Dance and the potlatch had been discouraged or banned outright by Ottawa as early as 1884. The provisions of the Indian Act were particularly oppressive. For example, individuals could only leave their reserves with a permit, a "pass system" that was essentially a policy of apartheid, a system which the Mounted Police were compelled to enforce, and a system which they hated.
Letitia Bird, Cree-Métis, 1885
Various efforts were made to ameliorate the situation. While no members of the First Nations were engaged as regular members, Commissioner Irvine recommended in 1884 that a special troop of Aboriginal peoples be organized to police reserves. His proposal fell on deaf ears. In 1887, Commissioner Herchmer succeeded in getting First Nations people sworn in as Special Constables. Native and Métis had been used since the "March West" as guides, interpreters and scouts. Enrolling them as Specials gave them a status and pay that were commensurate with their contributions to the NWMP. By 1896, about 50 First Nations scouts were on the payroll of the Mounted Police.
While Jerry Potts is undoubtedly the most well-known scout, the story of Star Child, a Blackfoot hired as a scout, is certainly the most intriguing. Star Child was accused of murdering the first Mountie killed in the line of duty, Constable Marmaduke Graburn, in 1879. He was tried for the murder in 1881 and acquitted by a jury of ex-policemen, who believed he was guilty, but agreed that there was insufficient evidence.
Two years later, Star Child was given four years in jail for horse stealing and, while at Stony Mountain, learned English. On his release, he was hired by the Mounted Police as a scout. In the 1889 annual report, Superintendant R. Burton Deane commented: "Out of several Indian scouts that I have tried none have proved to be worth their salt but Star Child and I am sorry to hear that he is dying of consumption. He did some good work for us, and I do not expect to replace him. He was a determined rascal, and the Indians generally were afraid of him."
NWMP in the Kootenays
While crime generally increased with population after 1886, the well-being of the First Nations remained a primary concern of the Mounted Police. For this reason, Sam Steele and a contingent of 75 men from "D" Division were sent to the Kootenays in British Columbia in 1887 to defuse a potentially violent situation.
By law, the NWMP were confined to present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan, but in the spring of 1887, events were unfolding in British Columbia that required the firm hand of the law. A dispute over land arose between a band of Shuswap Indians led by Chief Isadore and a small number of white settlers. The provincial government made little effort to resolve the issue, allowing it to smoulder almost out of control. British Columbia called on Ottawa for assistance, claiming that it was a federal matter.
After months of procrastination, the federal government decided that the Mounted Police would attempt to resolve the issue. The arrival of the small force, in Steele's words, "caused confidence to take the place of alarm." He met with Chief Isadore and the other disputants and promised equal treatment to all parties.
Some members of Fort Steele, British Columbia, August 4, 1888
The Mounted Police remained in the Kootenays for a year, and built Fort Steele, consisting of seven buildings, to house the men. The usual patrols were organized although patrolling was difficult in the rugged terrain. Before they left, Steele organized a two-day sports event for Aboriginal people and settlers. It was apparently a great success.
The Case of Almighty Voice
In 1894, the situation of First Nations throughout most of the prairie region worsened. Once again, the NWMP was called upon to assist in whatever way possible. Supplementary rations issued by the Department of Indian Affairs were inadequate and the police feared an outbreak of violence. The underlying frustration of the past 20 years was the root cause. The First Nations had been transformed from semi-nomadic hunters to residents on reserves. This was especially difficult for younger men and their frustration sometimes boiled over. Indian Department officials were attacked in separate incidents while dispensing rations; one official was killed, the other wounded.
The story of Almighty Voice is a case in point. In October 1895, this young First Nations man was accused of stealing a cow, arrested, and jailed at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. The constable in charge of the guard room, Robert C. Dickson fell asleep, Almighty Voice escaped, and in the ensuing pursuit, he shot and killed Sergeant Colin Colebrook. The whole sad affair did not come to an end until May 1897 when Almighty Voice and an accomplice were killed with a nine-pound gun, but not before Inspector John B. Allan and Sergeant Charles C. Raven were wounded. Almighty Voice was a powerful symbol of the last lashing out of First Nations against the humiliation of the pass system and the forced assimilation of the reserve.
The NWMP were always conscious, throughout their history, to ensure that indigenous people understood the law clearly and that laws were enforced fairly and without favour. It was not an easy task. Although serious cultural issues were at stake, the relationship between First Nations on the Prairies and the white population never showed the levels of violence that existed in the United States. The NWMP ensured that this would remain the case even when Aboriginal peoples suffered terribly as their way of life was disrupted in the 1870s and 1880s.
Historian Rod Macleod observed some years ago that the relationship between the Mounted Police and the First Nations evolved over time, from offering protection and introducing the law to providing relief, medical attention, and even employment. The files of the NWMP during this period document an essentially pragmatic and judicious approach to problems associated with reserves. Only in this way could they attempt to bridge the great divide between cultures with a minimum of violence and disorder. The extent to which this effort succeeded, and in whose interest it was exercised, is still debated.