Tag: Northwest Mounted Police

The Not Wild West

I have always subscribed to the theory that the American west was the stuff of gunslingers and range wars, while the Canadian west was orderly, hard-working and a bit dull. 

My latest reading has shaken that idea into the gumbo of Saskatchewan mud. Red Lights on the Prairies by James Grey is a study of the “social evil,” in Canada’s prairie provinces from the late 1880’s until the end of WWII.

James Grey, a son of the prairies, had a successful career as a newspaper man before retiring and turning his hand to writing books. His work is littered with references to various newspapers of the period, along with police reports and first hand accounts from old timers. The result is an entertaining and readable history of Canada’s west that never appeared in my social studies classes in school.

He begins his account in Winnipeg, the first of the prairies cities to achieve city status. The development of this city was mimicked in large part by other centres like Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon. The railway arrived first and the town grew around the station. The town-sites had virtually no infrastructure so hotels, shops, livery stables and houses were thrown up willy-nilly in close proximity to the station. Travellers getting off the trains were met with an abundance of bars and con men, and a dearth of lodgings. 

Since the vast majority of new arrivals were single men, prostitution was not only tolerated but regarded as necessary. The prevailing attitude was that with 200,000 men without female partners, brothels were just another business. Politicians and police tended to turn a blind eye to the madams and their girls provided they kept the noise and brawling to a respectable level. They were more inclined to take action against the houses-of-ill-repute on liquor offences than on moral grounds.

In all the cities of the prairie provinces, the argument around brothels centred on the question of segregation. Some notable police chiefs left the prostitutes alone so long as they stayed in their own area of town, Annabella Street in Winnipeg, River Street in Regina and Nose Creek in Calgary. When the “ladies” paraded around town in their finery, insulting the sensibilities of decent women and reforming clergy, the police were wont to “run them out of town.” The latter was a fruitless exercise as the women simply re-established their houses beyond the city borders but near enough for the cowhands, miners, railway workers, and farmers sons to find them on payday. 

When the reformers and Temperance workers were able to persuade a city to close down a red light district*, the police would reluctantly comply, knowing full well the prostitutes might set up shop in the downtown district or in a back room of a hotel and the “social evil” would continue unabated. Some time later, the protests over public morals would come full circle and the women would be moved into a segregated area where they were less apt to come into contact with respectable women.

In some cities the brothels were treated like community centres. They were usually larger and more luxurious than the hotels. Town council might meet in the living room of a friendly madam. Fraternal organizations would enjoy a good dinner and music in a bordello during their monthly meeting. 

It wasn’t unusual for one of the girls to grow tired of life in the brothel and marry one of her customers. The stigma attached to prostitution in our day was remarkably absent in the early 20th century. Mind you, the wife of a miner or other labourer could be a misery–a tiny shack, limited means, and hard physical labour. If the husband drank his wages the new wife might drift back to her former profession just to keep herself fed.

Back to my original perceptions — it is true that the Canadian west was less lawless than its American counterpart. The Mounties preceded the settlers in Canada. In the US settlement often came first and law and order came later. But the notion that the vast expanse of the Canadian prairie was peopled by, as Grey puts it “monks, eunuchs, and vestal virgins” has been completely overturned. Booze, broads and brawls were as much a part of settlement in Canada’s west as sod shanties and one room schoolhouses.

*There were no actual red lights in the brothels on the Canadian prairies. The term is an Americanism, no doubt imported along with the thousands of American settlers who flowed north to Canada.

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Law on the Frontier

As part of my research, I’m reading real life stories of the Northwest Mounted Police.  Our public conscience sees the Mounties as glamorous, romantic figures, the essence of heroic, stoic, dogged, upright, committed and brave.  The truth is, the myth and the reality aren’t that far apart.  In the late nineteenth century one man was often assigned to bring law and order to vast areas of wilderness, to deal with murderers, thieves, drunks and claim-jumpers over hundreds of square miles.  It wasn’t uncommon for a single policeman to travel 1000 miles by horse and canoe to bring a prisoner to stand trial in a courtroom.

In 1858, when the Fraser gold rush brought tens of thousands of prospectors, many of them heavily armed, into the British Columbia interior, the miners outnumbered the police by over one thousand to one, the rule of law reigned.  What the Mounties couldn’t do by superior numbers, they accomplished with personal courage, reputation, skill and good will.  One of the reasons for the red coat, was that it symbolized the crown.  At that time Queen Victoria was held in high esteem, especially by the native population.  The Mounties, by fair dealing, established good relations with the aboriginal population.  Even when they had to arrest a native, his people believed he would receive a fair trial.  There are many instances where natives have worked with the police to track a criminal and bring him to justice.

Men in the field (it was all men at that time.  Women were first admitted to the RCMP in 1974) took short cuts that wouldn’t be permitted today, like searching a cabin without a warrant, but given the magnitude of their task, they must be forgiven a few technical leniencies.  If the search produced evidence of wrongdoing – like a murdered man’s wallet – the culprit was arrested.  If no evidence came to light, there was no arrest.

Since many of the men who volunteered for Sam Steele’s police force were scions of noble families in England, it is hard to imagine the loneliness and isolation they must have felt being the only lawman in a vast territory.  Yet they persevered and did their duty.  When the Colonial Secretary visited the Wild Horse Creek mines in 1882 he remarked that “I found the Birish Columbia mining laws in full force, all customs duties paid, no pistols to be seen and everything as quiet and orderly as it could possibly be in the most civilized district of the colony . . . much to the surprise and admiration of many who remembered the early days of the state of California.”

In our cynical age, it is popular to scoff at Duddly DoRight, but I’d rather trust my safety to a determined, methodical, dogged servant of the law, intent on doing the right thing, than on some wise-cracking talk-show host, bent on raising his ratings.

Mounties and other police are still dying to” Maintiens le Droit” (hold the right).  We owe them our thanks and admiration.

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Tombstones

I have a fascination with old graveyards, the older and more isolated the better.  When I was researching my Prospect stories, I spent considerable time wandering through ghost towns and old graveyards.  The tale of human triumph and tragedy was there, written on the stones.  I could tell when an epidemic has passed through the area by the number of children who died within weeks of each other.   One heartrending epitaph gave a child’s age as 27 hours. One stone gave a brief epitaph of a man’s life and concluded with the words, “shot” and the date.

Some grave markers are stone, others are wooden, one notable one was a varnished tree branch.  Some are nearly impossible to read with moss and lichen covering the face and weather dimming the letters.  At Fort Steele, in British Columbia, there is a very well tended corner of the historic graveyard, surrounded by a wrought iron railing, (the original white pickets  rotted), it contains the memorial of five members of the NorthWest Mounted Police, who died there.

On older gravestones the place of birth was often noted.  As though the deceased wanted future passersby to know where he came from as well as where he was buried.  Perhaps they had a sense of history and knew family members might one day come looking for them.

Here are two examples:  Native of Milton Abbot, Devonshire, England. Aged 32 years, who met with his death on the 15th of June 1864 by accident while working in the Prairie Flower Ore Claim

Native of Sweden. Born in the year of our Lord [date removed]. Died in the R.C. Hospital the 10th of October, 1883 from the effect of a fall in a shaft by which he broke his back and died afterwards within six hours.

 I also have a penchant for reading the obituaries.  There are some interesting stories told in those columns too, although more and more I see “no service by request,” and “ashes were scattered . . .”  In contrast to previous generations, our age seems less inclined to leave a monument to mark their passing through this world.  Perhaps they wish to spare their families expense.  Perhaps their ideology opposes cemeteries.  Whatever the reason, future generations will be unable to wander through a graveyard and read the history on its stones.   We’ll all be poorer for it.

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