- Sam Steele: A Biography by Rod Macleod
Sam Steele was one of the most important public figures very few Canadians know. Although not a politician or successful entrepreneur, he played a prominent role in a succession of major events between the 1870s and the end of the Great War in 1919 that helped shape the fledgling nation which had been put together in 1867. As his latest biographer, Rod Macleod, a historian retired from the University of Alberta, argues: “His adult life corresponded with the first half century of the new transcontinental Canada and he did more to help create it than all but a handful of his contemporaries.” (1)
Steele combined talent and opportunism to assemble his remarkable career between the establishment of the North West Mounted Police in 1873 and his death in 1919. Born near Orillia, Ontario, in 1848, Steele found his calling by participating in events in the West after 1870 that proved key to Canada’s development. He was among the early recruits who made the trek west in 1874 to establish good relations with First Nations of the plains through the 1870s and early 1880s. That experience came in handy when the North West Rebellion broke out. Steele led a mounted force, known as Steele’s Scouts, during the suppression of the insurrection. His troops pursued Big Bear and Wandering Spirit’s band after the Frog Lake Massacre and the taking of Fort Pitt. Eventually, the Woods Cree party disintegrated as they moved northward away from the pursuing troops, and Big Bear gave himself up to authorities. Naturally, Steele was lionized for his part in forcing one of the most feared of those involved—or assumed to have been involved—in the hostilities to surrender. By this point, Steele’s ability to organize and train fighting forces quickly and effectively had become known to authorities. A lengthy period of frustrating inaction ensued that was leavened by his marriage to Marie Harwood, a young woman from a distinguished Quebec family, in 1890. Steele next had a chance to display his organizational and leadership skills during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s. The Canadian government, fearful that the activities of American prospectors and miners might undermine the country’s hold on the northern territory, dispatched Steele and a mounted police force north to establish a customs post and enforce Canadian law. This episode was another chance for Steele to shine, as his leadership ability and willingness to face down obstreperous law breakers effectively solidified Canada’s authority. Significantly, it was Steele’s role in the Yukon [End Page 126] that the makers of the Heritage Minutes chose to glorify on film. In Steele’s Minute, he confronts an armed American ne’er-do-well intent on establishing a gambling house near the gold fields, forcing the interloper to retreat on horseback, all the while muttering “I shoulda shot that guy. Why didn’t I shoot that guy?” The trope of the intrepid, invincible Mountie who deters bad guys just by the force of his character and the reputation of his uniform leaps out from the short film.
In some ways, Steele’s Yukon experience was the highlight of his career. He went on to lead a regiment, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, in the Boer War, and then stayed in South Africa as part of that country’s Constabulary until 1907. The brutal methods that the police forces sometimes employed to control the indigenous Africans never became notorious in Canada, allowing Steele’s reputation to remain unblemished. Back in Canada, he was nevertheless frustrated as command of the mounted police, which he had coveted from at least the 1880s, continued to elude him. Finally, though, he would obtain another prize during the Great War. Although well into his sixties by the time fighting broke out in 1914, Steele led forces and ultimately, despite the machinations of politicians such as the notorious Sam Hughes, achieved the rank of general before the war ended in 1918. Steele...