Thursday, October 19, 2006

Common Mounted Police Problems In 1889

Police today think they got it tough? "The New West" -- a collection of reports filed by the North-West Mounted Police in 1889 -- should be required reading.

In 1876, the North West Act was passed, providing governance to what was then the North-Territories (now essentially Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba). I can find very little information about the act itself, but one particular part of it caused a lot of trouble for the Mounties: the Liquor Laws.

These laws forbade the importation and sale of liquor (though apparently not beer) without a permit from the Governor-General, the point being to prevent Indians from drinking it. But the Mounted Police found it impossible to enforce, especially since lawyers were always finding ingenious new loopholes in it. Not even the local government seemed sympathetic to the law; one judge even ruled that people could sell liquor as long as they had SOME permit, even if it was somebody else's. Every single report in this book contains a frustrated screed by the officers: everybody hates the law, we can't enforce it, it must be changed.

Equally annoying to the Mounted Police was the state of their barracks furniture, which they had to make themselves out of rough wood. This lowered morale almost as much as the lack of recreational facilities, and the officers were constantly pleading for iron bed frames, mainly because the iron frames could be folded up to allow the men more room to move around. Superintendent J. Cotton made the typical comment (so typical that it starts to sound like a coordinated campaign): "The ordinary boards and trestles furnish the men with a wretched substitute for a bed, and, at best, present a sorry appearance in the barrack room."

Once you joined the Mounted Police you signed up for a specific term and could only leave by buying out your contract. Even then it often took months for a buyout to be authorized. Since most of the men were skilled farmers and craftsmen -- and the life of a Mountie was cruel, harrowing, and ill-rewarded -- many of them saw better opportunities in the nearby towns and couldn't wait to be authorized to leave. Some of them deserted the force, mainly by crossing the border into Montana. This seems to make the officers more sad than angry.

Apart from difficulties with fire protection (not enough equipment for storing water and too many fires caused by locomotive sparks), a lack of bridges and ferries (making crossing rivers a life-threatening exercise), and dissatisfaction with the armaments (especially the Winchester carbines and the revolvers which were "too powerful"), the reports are mostly positive.

They get most colourful when they start talking about their dealings with the Indians. They generally divided the tribes into good (Bloods, Piegans, Stoneys) and bad (Cree) categories, except for the much-maligned "half-breeds" -- AKA Metis, or French-Indians -- who were generally described as shiftless criminals: "Many are idle and have no settled occupation, and if they get any money waste it in drinking and gambling."

Indians occasionally stole horses, slaughtered ranch cattle, and drank too much, but these were always stressed as isolated cases. Sometimes they camped close to ranches: "They have numbers of dogs, and these dogs chase calves and colts, kill poultry, etc.; Certainly a camp of Indians near one's house is not a desirable addition." The general tone was that the Indians were "good-natured" and needed to be prodded in the right direction.

From my 21st century point of view -- aware that the Native Americans have legitimate grievances, then and now -- I'm always on the lookout for racism in these reports. I started getting suspicious when officers kept mentioning Indians leaving their reservations "without a pass." Not having access to the laws of the time, I got more and more concerned: was there REALLY a law saying that the Indians had to get some sort of "pass" before they could walk on non-reservation land?

Then I came across this little gem of subdued horribleness, thanks to Superintendent R. B. Deane:
The Indians that have come this way from the Blood Reserve have, on the whole, behaved themselves well... Others come with all sorts of plausible pretexts to account for being off their reserve without a pass. Some do not appear to think a pass necessary at all. One Indian produced a pass which was exactly a year old, and therewith was quite content. Some of them seem to be aware that in point of law they have as much right to roam about the country as white men, and that confinement to a reserve was not one of the provisions of their treaty.
You've got to be KIDDING me. The Mounted Police were regularly enforcing a fake "pass law" to keep Indians from leaving their reservations? And this is nonchalantly described in a report, with full knowledge that the reports were published every year for public reading? This has changed the tone of everything I'm reading; if such a basic violation of the rights of the Indians was so casually tossed around, I can't imagine what they DIDN'T put in the reports.

Not altogether surprising, but these 19th century Mounties sounded like such even-handed guys until then.


Anonymous said...

You have a wonderful, vivid style. It's a real pleasure to read not only what you say but how you say it.


Adam Thornton said...

Thanks Eric! And now that I've started reading the surgeon's reports, the book is getting even more interesting. Some surgeons are obsessed with ventilation, others are obsessed with rotting vegetable matter, and the lead surgeon is a complete insufferable asshole.