- Interdependence and ColonizationMetis Auxiliaries and the North-West Mounted Police, 1874–1895
Canada, military, resistance, social capital, territories
What follows is a description and interpretation of the cooperation between the North-West Mounted Police (nwmp) and its Metis1 auxiliaries during the last decades of the nineteenth century. This partnership has until now been largely overlooked in historiography because historians’ attention has been focused on the conflict between the Metis people and the Canadian government.2 Following Confederation in 1867, the Canadian government undertook to integrate the northern part of the Great Plains without regard to the wishes of the Aboriginal inhabitants. This move led to the Resistance of the Red River Metis, which delayed the incorporation of the North-West Territories into the Dominion until 1870. Despite this initial clash between the Metis and the government, the North-West Mounted Police became reliant on Metis auxiliaries, hired as scouts, guides, and interpreters. This cooperation, anchored in the Peelite functioning of the early nwmp, is highly relevant to an understanding of the colonization of western Canada. We argue that the concept of Peelite cooperation can help to explain both the limited recourse to coercion by the nwmp in its colonial mission, and the agency of the Metis auxiliaries in dealing with colonizing forces, as they sought sociocultural and material benefits from their employer.
The nwmp was created by the Canadian Parliament in May 1873 as a part of the government’s efforts to impose its sovereignty in the Prairie West. The Canadian government was aware of the difficulties faced by the United States as it colonized its western lands during the 1860s. Rather than opting for the costly military approach followed by its neighbor,3 Canada chose to deploy a permanent [End Page 101] and hybrid police force, with both civilian and military attributes. The powers and responsibilities of the nwmp included controlling Aboriginal populations (Metis and First Nations), preventing crime, and enforcing Canadian law and sovereignty.4 The judicial authority of the nwmp was also defined: the commissioned officers of the force were made ex officio justices of the peace and possessed limited but very real judicial powers. This double function gave them great power and was described by John Jennings as a “legal tyranny.”5 Considering their services and help to destitute Aboriginal populations, R. C. Macleod opted for the term “benevolent despotism.”6
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was ambivalent about the nature of the force he envisioned. On the one hand, he wrote in 1869 to Captain D. R. Cameron, a militia officer accompanying the Canadian delegation sent to effect the annexation of the North-West Territories, “that the best force would be Mounted Riflemen, trained to act as cavalry, but also instructed in the rifle exercises. They should also be instructed, as certain of the line are, in the use of artillery. This body should not be expressly military but should be styled Police and have the military bearing of the Irish Constabulary.”7 The nwmp incorporated these military elements, along with the red uniforms of the British army.8 On the other hand, at the time of its inception, Macdonald expressed a preference for the least martial appearance possible. In 1873, during the parliamentary debates he stated: “They are to be purely civil, not a military body with as little gold lace, fuss and fine feathers as possible; not a crack cavalry regiment, but an efficient police force for the rough and ready—particular ready—enforcement of law and justice.”9
The civilian aspects of the projected Canadian force have not been given sufficient recognition by historians.10 The “Principles of the British Police,” an expression coined by Charles Reith, stemmed from the instructions of Robert Peel, home secretary, and of Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne, commissioners of London’s “New Police” in the 1830s.11 These so-called Peelite principles called for the limited use of force and for the cooperation between the public and the police.12 The conduct of the British police throughout the mid-nineteenth century demonstrated the importance of cooperation, public approval, and such communicative aptitudes as advice...