Manitoba History: Review: William R. Morrison, Showing the Flag: The Mounted Police and Canadian Sovereignty in the North, 1894-1925
by Walter Hildebrandt
Countless popular and scholarly volumes have been written about the North-West Mounted Police over the years. Few have been written specifically on the police role in Canada’s North. Showing the Flag, while adding to the plethora of literature on the Mounted Police is a welcome addition in that it covers an aspect of the Force’s history that until now has been neglected. It is also welcome because it cautiously challenges entrenched myths about our national constabulary.
Historical writing about the NWMP has changed dramatically over the years. Early histories of the Police did much to establish the image of these men as tireless minions of “law and order,” harbingers of civilization which in most histories was equated with British or Anglo-Canadian culture. It is clear in histories of the Mounties written prior to and immediately after WWI that there was still a perceived need to establish an Anglo-Canadian presence in a thinly populated frontier among what were characterized as threatening Métis, Inuit, and Indian populations. Indeed it was Prime Minister Macdonald himself who referred to the North-West in the 1880s as that “fretful realm.” These early histories reflected the preoccupations of the Anglo-Canadian males who chose to write the history of the police. The law and order theme in the official histories revealed the concern of police historians with the force and physical violence employed to secure the Western and Northern frontiers under Canadian sovereignty. Native people in the North West were portrayed as threatening the establishment of an agricultural base for white Anglo-Canadian immigrants who were encouraged to settle in the West by government authorities. The Mounted Police were seen as champions “clearing the way” for this vision of Canadian society. Such an attitude is classically evident, for example, in Edmond Oliver’s contribution to Canada and Its Provinces published in 1914. Victorian and Edwardian Canadians felt the need to be protected from the threatening forces of untamed Nature and those who, in their minds, lived closest to Nature. Up to the 1960s the work of police historians, mythmakers, journalists and police-writers helped to leave middle-class white Canadians with a feeling of security about their national police force.
Eventually the law and order theme gave way in historical writing to the portrayal of the NWMP as agents of the National Policy — really the extension of the metropolitan thesis of Canadian history. After World War II aboriginal populations were no longer presented as a threat and historians no longer dwelt on the use of physical force to gain respect of local Native populations. (This may have been the result of tolerance gained because of the many Natives who fought beside whites during the War.) Still, some “liberal” historians, though optimistic and boosterish in their overall portrayal of the police, paid scant attention to the way in which Native people were affected by the Mounties — even though the presence of Indians, Métis and Inuit peoples was one of the primary reasons for the existence of the police on Canada’s frontiers. With Natives no longer either visible or threatening, historians increasingly portrayed the Mounties in their role as policemen for the large white populations that peopled the plains as the National Policy blossomed under the Laurier liberals. During this era the Indians were seen as having been dealt with “fairly.”
Historians such as R. C. MacLeod shifted the focus from reliance on “dominio” or force to more subtle means of social control. In this view, Mounties in the North-West during their first few decades were simply carrying out what was in the best interests of the nation. After the two wars, physical force was no longer presented as an efficient way of controlling social behaviour as the ideology of an Anglo-Canadian leader-ship became entrenched in educational and social institutions. Images and models for acceptable behaviour were disseminated through the mass production of visual and written media and through teaching in schools and churches. The tools for effectively controlling behaviour had become cultural and the reliance on overt use of physical force receded.
William Morrison’s book represents a welcome departure from past NWMP histories. Unlike previous histories of the police Morrison is interested not only in how aboriginal populations changed as a result of the presence of the Mounties but also in how the Police changed as a result of contact with local and Native populations. He has implicitly adopted the “acculturation” model popularized by James Axtell — a model which draws attention not only to the actions and influence of the colonizer but also the strategies of “collaboration and resistance” adopted by the colonized populations in face of a military authority that would have been useless to resist. This is not to suggest that Morrison is in any way unfair or “radical” in his treatment of the police. Indeed his approach is exceedingly balanced and he shows great sympathy towards the police because of the very difficult circumstances they were often thrown into in the North. They confronted dangers and found starving, destitute populations; to handle these and other situations they had few resources and almost no policy directives to guide them.
The manner in which the police helped establish Canadian authority in the North, and the ways in which they responded to and accommodated local and Native populations, are the themes carried through the major chapters of the book. The narrative begins with the early presence of the police in the Yukon during the Gold Rush and then goes on to describe and analyze police activities in the High and Eastern Arctic and the Mackenzie Delta. Morrison documents the various means of both physical force and cultural persuasion used by the police to entrench Canadian laws and a Canadian way of “doing things.” But Morrison’s best chapter is entitled “The Police and the Native Peoples of the Northern Frontier.” Here he documents Police paternalism and contempt for Indians as well as Police concern and sympathy for the situation in which Indians often found themselves. An instance of the latter is the actions of a Mountie who viewed with alarm the monopoly held by the Hudson’s Bay Company over the local Indians. “Over the course of many years, the company had established a relationship with the Indians which reduced them in some instances almost to the level of serfs.” (p. 146) To lower the profits the company was extracting from local Indians the superintendent threatened to begin trading with the Indians himself. Thus, while there was much overt and covert racism, there was also sympathy and tolerance shown towards the local population. Still, entrenched racism pointed to the irony of the Police presence in the north as in the case of one constable who asked his superior for permission to marry a local Indian. The superintendent responded by saying he would rather report back to Ottawa that the constable had blown his brains out than to report that he had married a local Indian. Permission denied. The Inuit by contrast were treated with greater sympathy and were seen as more “industrious” and friendly than the “sullen lazy” Indians of the North. Morrison analyzes the reasons for these contrasting images and concludes that there were cultural reasons for these distinctions: “The survival of the Inuit race required that its members be generous and hospitable; this was not true to the same extent of Indians” (p. 153). While such explanation may not be convincing, Morrison raises for discussion possible explanations for police treatment of different Native groups.
One shortcoming of the chapter focussing on Indian-white relations is the source material on which it is based. Morrison relies heavily on government documents. He uses them critically and finds evidence to present a Native perspective. It is disappointing, however, that he has made no attempt to use evidence from the cultural traditions of the Native and Inuit societies; transcripts of interviews exist that could have rein-forced the dialogical approach to which Morrison seems sympathetic. To let Indians speak for themselves through their own traditions and about their own history would have been preferable to gleaning it from government and newspaper sources.
Forty photographs are clearly and effectively reproduced in the volume. They record traces of the “moments in time” in the social and cultural history of the North. It is interesting to ponder the contrasting images of the Police and Natives in these photos. The former are stern and authoritarian; they are attired in uniforms, and have adopted studio poses. The latter stand in the traditional sealskin dress and look directly at the camera. Evidence of acculturation can be seen in the photo of policemen in Native coats and behind teams of husky dogs. Photos of the ramshackle towns and the “Goddesses of Liberty Enlightning Dawson” convey the atmosphere of the heady days of the Gold Rush. Ultimately the power and authority of the Mounted Police and the Anglo-Canadian society they came to represent are constituted in the photos of Inuit and Indians prisoners under the arrest of the police and in the photo of the court proceedings in Hershel Island where the Union Jack hangs as part of the background for the trials of Alikomiak and Tatimagana, the first two Inuit executed under Canadian Law. If there is a general weakness in Morrison’s approach it is that he has not attempted to place the book within the lively historiography of “social control” that has been thriving in Britain and the U.S. over the past decade. Much has been written about the social function of police forces, prisons, and other such institutions. Books and essays by Michel Ignatieff, Gareth Stedman Jones, Andrew Scull, David Rothman, Stanley Cohen, and others would have provided a broader context for Showing the Flag. Perhaps this is asking too much from a book that already offers fresh insights and innovative methodologies that help to demystify the role of our beloved Mounties.
Page revised: 23 October 2012Back to top of page