The heroes of a hundred adventure stories and eccentric, epic films, including such classics as Canadian Mounties versus the Atomic Invaders, the Mounties have been the continent’s most charismatic good guys since the mid-1870s. The North West Mounted Police, as they were originally called, were established in Ottawa in 1873 and given the task of restoring law and order in Saskatchewan and Alberta’s “Whoop-up Country” in the aftermath of the Cypress Hills Massacre. But there was no long-term strategy: the force’s areas of responsibility were undecided and even their uniforms had been slung together from a surplus supply of British army tunics. Yet they did a brilliant job, controlling whiskey traders who had created pandemonium by selling liquor to the Plains Indians. The force’s future was secured after they successfully defused a very delicate situation in 1876. Fearing reprisals after his victory over General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Chief Sitting Bull and five thousand Sioux moved north, establishing a camp at Wood Mountain, 350km east of Fort Walsh. Aware of the danger, Inspector James Walsh rode into the camp with just four other constables to insist the Sioux obey Canadian law. Walsh’s bravery helped establish a rough rapport with Sitting Bull and greatly enhanced the force’s reputation.

The Mounties became vital in administering the West, acting as law enforcement officers and justices of the peace. From the 1880s onwards their patrols crisscrossed the territory, their influence reinforced by their knowledge of local conditions accumulated in the exercise of a great range of duties – including delivering the mail and providing crop reports. Despite this level of autonomy, the Mounties saw themselves as an integral, if remote, part of the British Empire, their actions and decisions sanctioned by the weight of its authority. They despised the individualism of the US sheriff and marshal; Mounties expected obedience because of the dignity of their office, not their speed with a firearm. Officers became respected for an even-handedness that extended, remarkably for the period, to dealings with the Plains Indians. Yet the force’s conservative class prejudice was less positive in their approach to policing the “lower orders”.

After 1920, when the force became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, this conservative undertow became more problematic. The RCMP consistently supported politicians – Prime Minister Richard Bennet among them – who used them to break strikes. They have also often been accused of bias in their dealings with the Québécois. In recent years their reputation has taken a further hit: accusations of widespread corruption, making errors that led to the rendition of Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria and the Taser-related death of a man at Vancouver airport in 2007. As evidenced by the coverage these incidents received, the Mounties remain a potent – and important – symbol of nationality.

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