Showing the Flag: The Mounted Police and Canadian Sovereignty in the North, 1894-1925
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
Sidney Allinson is a Victoria-based communications consultant, Canadian
news correspondent for Britain’s The Army Quarterly and Defence, and
author of The Bantams: The Untold Story of World War I.
Time was, Canada’s “Mounties” were universally popular. Anywhere in the world, our scarlet-coated police were a symbol of all that was ideal among national law-enforcement agencies. Sadly, though, their image seems to have slipped a little of late, with media allegations of RCMP wrong-doing, and a certain clumsiness by some officers when dealing with “subversives.” Perhaps, though, these recent problems simply stem from the fact that the modern-day force is now being employed on tasks that are radically different from the activities that built their early mystique. Just how important was the work of the original Canadian Mounted Police in helping develop our country, and how well they did it, is told from a fresh point of view in William Morrison’s Showing the Flag.
His approach has particular relevance today, in that his book focuses on Canadian sovereignty in the North. It seems that our grip on territorial claims there was somewhat unsure 90 years ago. However, from Morrison’s description of the unhesitatingly forceful characters in the ranks of the early Mounties sent there, our North might even have been more firmly controlled then than now, considering the tentative manner in which Canada presides over our modern Arctic.
In 1894, American gold-seekers, trappers, and even Army survey parties roamed our Yukon and Arctic territories with a cheerfully ignorant disregard for whose land it was. So it was primarily a political move that sent units of the North West Mounted Police into the region. While there was little need for conventional police work in such sparsely settled country, there was a pressing requirement for some form of armed presence by emissaries of Ottawa. The Mounted Police who first arrived in the Yukon goldfields put down any law-breaking with the same brisk efficiency and lack of Wild West gunfire with which they had just previously brought order to our prairies. Among the 40 unique and interesting photographs in the book, the police’s quasi-military role is shown by constables equipped with Vickers machine guns.
Though Morrison’s approach is more that of the sociologist than that of the journalist, he draws a colorful picture of some formidable individuals in the Force. They were adventurers, rough and tough men who were not your average modern liberal in outlook; but then, nobody else was on the frontier, either. The Mounties arrived with a no-nonsense outlook and a sense of utter rightness that typified their era and upbringing. However, the author seems on wobbly ground when he makes a point of stating that these guardians of law in the Northwest were “mainly Anglo-Saxons from Eastern Canada or Britain.” The allusion is faintly absurd, of course, as most of Canada’s English-speaking population at the time lived in Eastern centres and was then composed of such stock.
Morrison’s book is useful reference for students of the era and region. It provides political insights and gives examples of how the Inuit and Native people had a generally good relationship with the constables, however autocratic they were. Certainly, along with their political role, the NWMP brought much practical help to their native charges. While providing a certain rough justice when needed, they at other times had the ability to close an eye to regulations when wisdom dictated.