Though by the 1870s it had become illegal to supply Aboriginal peoples with booze, whisky traders had nevertheless spread out across Canada’s southwestern plains, which were aptly nicknamed Whoop-up Country. These traders were mostly from the US and brought their liquor north in the autumn, returning south in late spring laden with furs and buffalo robes. They established dozens of posts, such as that at Lethbridge, where they could trade while being protected from their disorderly customers by log stockades.

In the spring of 1873, there were two such outposts beside Battle Creek, deep in the Cypress Hills. For reasons that remain obscure, though drunkenness no doubt played a part, this was the scene of a violent confrontation between a group of white wolf-hunters, whisky traders and a band of Assiniboine. Equipped with the latest fast-action rifles, the hunters and traders riddled the Assiniboine camp with bullets, killing up to seventy before packing up and heading back across the US border. News of the incident, known as the Cypress Hills Massacre, filtered back to Ottawa and helped speed up the recruitment of the newly formed North West Mounted Police, or Mounties, who received their first posting west that autumn (see The Mounties).

The Mounties attempted to have eight of the participants in the massacre extradited from the US, but failed. Three of these men were later arrested in Canada and a trial was held in Winnipeg in 1876, but because of conflicting testimonies and a lack of evidence, all three were acquitted; no one was ever punished.

Nevertheless, First Nations people appreciated the Mounties’ efforts and were heartened by the thought that everyone was going to be seen as equal in the eyes of this new police force. The Mounties may have kept the peace, but they were also a major part of a policy of containment and control of Aboriginal peoples, spearheading a determined push that forced them onto reservations, to open the area to European settlers.

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