A Policeman’s Lot is not a Happy One: The Mounted Police and Prohibition in the North-West Territories, 1874-91

by Stanley W. Horrall
R.C.M.P. Ottawa

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-74 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Help us keep
history alive!

By 1880 the North-West Mounted Police had acquired an enviable reputation as a zealous and efficient police force dedicated to the firm but fair enforcement of law and order in the North-West Territories. Words of praise for its accomplishments came from both sides of the border. The embryonic press of western Canada credited the force with bringing peace and prosperity to the prairies. [1] To the south, American observers had noted the success of the Canadian experiment in establishing order on the western frontier. The United States Indian Agent for Montana informed his superiors in Washington that the whisky traffic in the western states would never be effectively controlled until the government adopted measures similar to those so successfully carried out by the North-West Mounted Police. [2] One observer who was "delighted at the change that has been effected" by the arrival of the police was the Rev. J. M. McDougall, the Methodist missionary at Morleyville. [3] As for the Indians, Crowfoot, the Chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy, expressed his appreciation for what the mounted police had done by ridding the country of the whisky trade. [4]

It was in the real achievements of these early years that the romantic and heroic myth of the "Mounties" had its foundation. In later years, the legendary image was to grow and expand, often overshadowing the actual character of the force and its subsequent history. In reality, during the decade after 1880, the earlier accolades turned to jeers, the praise to condemnation and the reputation of the force in the North-West Territories underwent an almost disastrous reversal. The explanation for this radical change in public opinion is not hard to find. It can be attributed almost entirely to the enforcement of the territorial liquor laws.

In 1875 the federal government enacted a stringent liquor law prohibiting the importation, manufacture and sale of intoxicants in the North West "except for medicinal and sacramental purposes," and even then, only "by special permission, in writing of the Lieutenant Governor." [5] Along with earlier legislation, this Act inaugurated the first large scale experiment in prohibition in Canadian history. The primary intent of this legislation, however, was not to dictate the drinking habits of the white settlers but rather to protect the Indian population from the nefarious activities of the whisky traders. It had its origin in the widely held assumption that liquor reduced the Indian to a violent and unmanageable savage who had to be protected from his own predilection for alcohol. In Ottawa's view the whisky traffic with the Indians threatened the establishment of order in the west, further settlement and the safety of the small white population which already inhabited the territory. The respectable and influential members of the white community would still be able to obtain liquor under the discriminatory loophole which gave the Lieutenant-Governor authority to make exceptions to the law. The right of individuals to import liquor with his written permission eventually became known as "the permit system." In the early years, the few whites who were discriminated against were too small in number and lacking in influence to make their resentment felt. The task of the police was to see the law's intent was not broken by unscrupulous individuals who in supplying the Indians with liquor would threaten the peace and security of Canada's new domain.

From the moment they arrived on the prairies the Mounted Police regarded the liquor laws as their primary enforcement responsibility. Although the whisky trade was never entirely eliminated, the police succeeded in keeping it effectively under control for the next six years. In enforcing the laws rigorously they had the full support of the settlers, the courts and the government. This general support for prohibition was a simple matter of survival for the few white settlers, traders and missionaries. They were a minority surrounded by a larger and more powerful Indian culture which was a threat to their continued existence.

The task of enforcement for the police was not at first very difficult. The few trails into the country could be easily watched. The settlements were few and far between and it was not hard to detect unwanted travellers. On the Montana border a system of patrols soon brought an end to the adventurous activities of the Fort Benton-based whisky traders. Meanwhile, to the east, the establishment of police posts on the old trails from Manitoba effectively controlled the entry of illegal liquor into the Saskatchewan country. Every cart or wagon entering the territories on this route was searched. During the summer of 1875 the Shoal Lake Detachment examined over 1,000 carts. Only one was found to have contraband liquor. [6]

In enforcing the law the hands of the police were considerably strengthened by the extraordinary judicial powers granted to the commissioned officers of the force. As justices of the peace or magistrates they tried most of the liquor offences in the early years, handing down stiff penalties to convicted whisky traders. Upon conviction, these traders were liable to fines of up to $300.00 and sentences of six months in jail as well as the confiscation of their teams and wagons. Justice in the police courts was usually swift and sure in these cases. The police magistrates reserved the stiffest penalties for those caught supplying liquor to Indians. This penalty was usually a fine of $200.00 or six months in prison. [7] Then, and later, the Mounted Police regarded the protection of the Indians as a special responsibility. Under these circumstances the administration of the law proved to be an effective deterrent in combating the whisky trade. In 1876, Commissioner Macleod could report with all honesty, "the liquor traffic is now suppressed." [8]

The euphoria of the Mounted Police proved to be short-lived, however. In 1882 the railway began to thread its way across the continent, exposing the vast empty prairies to settlement. In its wake came an ever growing stream of emigrants. From the south, meanwhile, American settlers started to push northward into western Canada opening up new trails across the border. Towns and villages sprang up where once the nomadic Indians had hunted the buffalo. As white settlement grew, the Indians gradually became a minority. Confined to their reservations and demoralized by the loss of their traditional ways, they ceased to be a threat to the white population. To the new settlers they were an inferior caste whose drinking habits could no longer threaten the peace and order of the plains. Under these changing conditions the whites no longer saw the need for the earlier restraints on the availability or use of alcohol.

Whatever it was about the nature of settling the virgin prairie, the new pioneers showed a marked liking for liquor. [9] In an anonymous letter in the Manitoba Free Press in 1876 a mounted policeman wrote; "I am neither a lover nor a hater of strong liquor, but I have discovered that a sojourn of two winters and two summers in the North-West without stimulants is quite enough to try the constitution of any white man." [10] Something about the isolation and harshness of pioneer life drove many men to drink, and to drink heavily. Drunkenness, as a result, soon became a serious social problem in many of the new settlements. A significant number of settlers, however, were determined, come what may, that nothing, not even the law, was going to dictate their drinking habits.

From the very beginning, the government's prohibition policy was inconsistent with its plans for settlement. One of the first to recognize this was the Rev. John McDougall. "It was a most anomalous state of affairs," he explained, for the Mounted Police who "were all drinking men, to be sent to suppress the liquor traffic." [11] Prohibition might have succeeded had the government insisted that every emigrant who entered the North-West become a confirmed teetotaler. The inconsistency could clearly be seen within the Mounted Police itself. Intoxication was an offence under the Force's regulations. It could be punished by fine or imprisonment. Successive commissioners found it impossible to eradicate, however. Throughout the period under study it remained the most persistent and prevalent disciplinary offence. Superintendent Steele estimated that ten per cent of his command were "drunkards". [12] When complaints were made in the House of Commons about the drinking in the Force, Macdonald expressed the government's tolerant but inconsistent attitude by stating that it would be impossible to "have a body of three hundred soldiers all saints." [13] Of course, drinking within the police was no worse than it was in western society as a whole. The police example merely illustrated what was true generally, that laws or regulations could not alter socially acceptable standards of behaviour. The discriminatory permit system was soon the object of resentment. The public was determined to drink and the fact that it might be illegal would not deter them. Eventually the enforcement of the prohibition laws became a nightmare for the police, bringing to an end an almost blissful period in the force's history.

One of the results of the rapid changes of the 1880s was a resurgence of smuggling. This soon became an insuperable obstacle to the effective enforcement of the liquor laws. To begin with, the construction of the railway across the prairies multiplied the possibilities for smugglers as well as the difficulties for the police. A sharp increase in convictions for possessing illegal liquor followed the laying of track through the Qu'Appelle area in 1882. [14] Its extension to Calgary was followed by the smug-ling of hundreds of gallons of liquor into the town. In one case, 300 gallons were discovered in a grain car addressed to a fictitious name. [15]

Liquor flowed in spite of the vigilance of the police. In concealing it aboard trains, smugglers showed imagination and inventiveness. "The ingenuity which is devoted to encompass the transgression of the prohibitory law is worthy of a better cause," lamented Commissioner Herchmer. "Books, (that is zinc cases made up in the shape of books), sardine cans, oyster cans, coal oil cans and barrels and many other receptacles including trunks are used to import liquor." [16] Whisky was often disguised as fruit, jam or pickles. Although the police searched each train as it crossed from Manitoba into the Territories, large quantities of liquor still found their way through to the thirsty inhabitants.

One of the most imaginative smuggling operations was reported in the Lethbridge News in January, 1888. As the police, "heads lowered," watched silently, a coffin was lifted from an incoming train and placed in a waiting hearse. The driver of the hearse, a well-known smuggler, was disguised "in a black suit of woe." While the Mounted Police continued to stand silently by, the hearse drove away with its coffin of liquor to celebrate the "funeral." [17]

In addition to the problems posed by the new rail link with the east, the smuggling of liquor of "the vilest possible description" via the older route from Montana enjoyed a widespread revival in the 1880s. The new supplies came across the border hidden in wagons. They were destined for the growing towns of Fort Macleod, Calgary and Regina. With increased traffic and a 900 mile border to patrol, apprehending the new generation of whisky traders was not a easy task for the small police force. Although the police had wide powers "to stop and detain while traveling any vessel, canoe, carriage, wagon, cart, sleigh or other vehicle" and "to search and destroy any liquor found therein," [18] they were still unable to halt the growing traffic. Smuggled liquor now commanded a high price. A gallon of whisky purchased in Benton, Montana for four dollars was reported to retail in Calgary at ten dollars a bottle." [19] Profits, combined with the decrease in the probability of detection, gradually removed much of the law's usefulness as a deterrent.

Under these changing conditions, smuggling was no longer limited to professional criminals. In 1888, Commissioner Herchmer reported seizures of liquor, "done up as canned apples and consigned to a Mr. Davidson, a Justice of the Peace at Qu'Appelle, and also two barrels of oatmeal consigned to the Rev. Leo Goetz and containing each ten gallons of whisky." [20] The widespread disregard for the law made smuggling an almost respectable occupation.

With the rapid growth of settlement, one of the keys to effective enforcement, or the lack of it, was the loophole in the 1875 Act which allowed for the importation of liquor, "by special permission in writing" of the Lieutenant-Governor. The intention of this provision was that those allowed to import liquor would do so only for personal use for either "medicinal or sacramental" purposes. It should be remembered that at the time liquor was widely believed to have medicinal value. Eventually, the Lieutenant-Governor's personally written notes were replaced by a formal certificate under his signature which became known as a liquor permit. To receive a liquor permit one applied directly to the Lieutenant-Governor's office. If the applicant was not personally known to him, it helped to have the recommendation of a "respectable" member of society, usually a politician or Justice of the Peace. Once the permit was obtained it was sent to a liquor supplier outside the Territories who returned it with the consignment of liquor when it was shipped into the North-West. Since the permit was intended to cover only a single shipment, it was the duty of the police to cancel it when it reached the local express office. This task became increasingly difficult as the number of trains, express offices and shipments of liquor multiplied.

At first the Lieutenants-Governor used this provision sparingly, issuing liquor permits only to persons they knew or could trust. As the population grew, and with it the demands for permits, it became impossible, however, for the Lieutenants-Governor to retain personal control over the use and distribution of permits. In trying to do so they opened themselves to charges of favouritism and discrimination, especially from the new social groups appearing in the towns. Reporting from Prince Albert, Superintendent Perry expressed the view that it was this discriminatory feature of the prohibitory legislation that accounted for most of the public's hostility towards the law. [21] In 1881, Edgar Dewdney became Lieutenant-Governor. His predecessor, David Laird, had endeavoured to restrict the importation of liquor. Recognizing the discriminatory nature of this system, Dewdney began to issue permits more freely, leaving it to the police to see that the liquor was used as provided for in the Act.

Apart from opening up the permit system to increased abuse, this new policy made a mockery of the law. One result was that the West was swept by an epidemic of hypochondria. With tongue in cheek the Calgary Herald commented on this phenomenon:

The prohibitory laws of the North-West enact that certain quantities of liquor may be brought into the Territory for medicinal purposes. Calgary must be a very unhealthy place and Governor Dewdney's sympathetic soul is stirred to its profoundest depths, that the health of the denizens of this valley may recover. [22]

It was soon recognized throughout the Territory that the granting of permits for "medicinal purposes" had become a farce. "The Lt. Governor probably knows better than anyone," wrote Macleod Gazette, "that for every gallon of liquor used as medicine, one hundred are used as the average man uses it, for ordinary drinking." [23]

While Dewdney's action placated some of his critics, it also signaled the introduction of a regular system of importing liquor. What had been the exception now became the rule. In 1883 permits were issued for the legal importation of 6,736 gallons of liquor. By 1889 this annual figure had grown to 151,629 gallons. [24] Quasi-legal misuse of the permits became common. According to popular practice once the liquor was imported, it could he sold or transferred, or the permit used for more than one shipment. Abuses crept in that made enforcement difficult and the police unpopular.

Because of the colonial nature of the territorial government the Mounted Police were left to choose their own role in the enforcing of the unpopular liquor laws. The citizens they policed had no direct control over the way in which justice was administered. The N.W.M.P. was a federal force. It came under the direction of a federal cabinet minister in Ottawa, not the settlers of the Territories, their local representatives in the Territorial Assembly or the officials of the territorial government. Prohibition during the 1880s was a controversial issue and federal politicians were reluctant to become embroiled in its enforcement. As a result, the Mounted Police was left to set its own policy. This at least left it free to a large degree of political interference. The police could have bowed to popular pressure and relaxed their enforcement. The authoritarian nature of their earlier position on the plains, however, did not make them very responsive to public opinion.

At first the Mounted Police set out to enforce the liquor laws as vigorously as they had in the past. There were two principal reasons for this. Firstly, most of the senior officers were imbued with a strong sense of duty. They were also proud of the way in which the earlier whisky trade had been eliminated. They could hardly now do a sudden about face. The law was still the law, and it was their sworn duty to enforce it. Secondly, there was the problem of the Indian. Although the police, like the settlers, came to look down upon the Indians as inferior, the police nevertheless retained a strong humanitarian concern for Indian welfare. The protection of the native people from the corrupting influences of white society had been one of their objectives. The officers of the Force realized that the degree of drinking among the Indians was directly related to the availability of liquor in the white population that surrounded them. Unless the liquor laws were vigorously enforced the Indians would gradually deteriorate to the demoralized state they had been in in the early 1870s. By 1885 Commissioner Irvine noted that the selling of liquor to Indians was on the increase. He pointed out that the maximum punishment that could be awarded to those convicted of this offence was no longer a deterrent. The Commissioner recommended that whisky trading with the Indians be made a penitentiary offence without the option of a fine. [25] This call for heavier penalties was echoed by officers in command of divisions throughout the North-West. Superintendent Neale also suggested that Indians should be prohibited from buying the "near beer," which had just been introduced to the Territories. Although it had a low alcoholic content, Neale pointed out that the Indians turned it into a potent brew by boiling it with tobacco. [26]

The public at large did not share the enthusiasm of the police for continued enforcement of the liquor laws. In his final report as commissioner, Irvine noted that the suppression of the liquor traffic had become the most "disagreeable" duty the force had to perform. "We are condemned on all sides," he continued, "for whatever action we take; settlers refuse to give information to assist in the laying of charges; the profits from the illegal trade far exceed the fines which can be levied; policemen working in plain clothes are held up to public execration (detective or undercover work by police was widely believed to be an underhanded and dishonourable means of employment); local magistrates are reluctant to hear liquor cases because it makes them unpopular." [27] On the other hand, interestingly enough, the Mounted Police policy did receive the support of many of the Indians, who were still anxious to keep liquor off their reserves. [28]

To enforce any law with even moderate success, that law must first have general acceptance within the community for which it has been legislated. The liquor laws were supported by a small but growing group of prohibitionists, but the majority of settlers were unalterably opposed to them. The campaign against prohibition was led by a young and vociferous pioneer press. "How much longer," asked the Macleod Gazette, "will the government uphold and enforce a law which annually drains thousands and thousands of dollars from the North-West while at the same time causing more drunkenness and drunkenness of a worse kind than there could possibly be if there was no restriction whatever?" [29] The Prince Albert Times took issue with those who would try to make men moral by Act of Parliament. "Besides being opposed to the divine plan of redemption," argued the Times, the prohibitory laws robbed man of his fundamental right to chose freely. The permit system, it concluded, "is condemned in the press, in the Council of the land, in the pulpit and in the drawing room." [30] Commissioner Irvine summarized the attitude of the settlers towards the liquor laws as follows:

I may safely say that the majority of the people living in the North-West do not respect and do not hesitate to break the prohibitory liquor law ... Men who were law abiding citizens in the old provinces do not think it a crime to evade the liquor law and do so on every opportunity. [31]

The general dissatisfaction with the liquor regulations was clearly reflected in the lack of public co-operation which accompanied the efforts of the police to enforce them. Information against whisky smugglers became impossible to obtain as no settler was willing to be ostracized by his neighbours. The Medicine Hat Times expressed a typical attitude of the period:

It is considered by the majority of people in Medicine Hat to be a low, mean and infamous piece of business to inform on a fellow citizen under such arbitrary laws as control the liquor traffic in the North-West ... The file oath would be far too sacred to apply to any so wholly depraved, unworthily artful, and devoid of all honour, as to inform on a man. [32]

It was customary to reward informants with half of the fine levied against a convicted smuggler. Not even this inducement was sufficient to overcome the general antipathy towards the law and the police. In 1886, Superintendent Perry reported that there had "not been a single voluntary civilian informer." [33] in his district of Prince Albert.

Not even the advocates of the temperance movement were willing to assist the Mounted Police. "I am sorry to say," stated Commissioner Herchmer, "that in the enforcement of this law the police receive very little encouragement from the class of settlers who are loudest in their complaints of its evasion." "If the settlers opposed to liquor," he continued, "do not care to take the responsibility and odium of supplying information, it is useless for them to complain that the law is not being zealously enforced." [34]

Because they were identified with the liquor laws, the police became the target of much of the public's hostility to them. The police were blamed for the law, although they were only its enforcers. As a federal force, the Mounted Police was, after all, an arm of the government that was responsible for imposing the unpopular legislation on the territory. Criticism was particularly strong in urban centres like Calgary, Macleod, Regina and Prince Albert. It tended to discredit the Force's image, challenge the authority of its members and, in the end, threaten its very survival. "Why any Mounted Police Officer," editorialized the Macleod Gazette (the editor C. E. D. Woods was an ex-member), "should dictate to any Canadian citizen as to what and when he should drink, is more than any fellow can tell." [35]

One frequent target of criticism was the judicial powers granted to commissioned officers as magistrates or Justices of the Peace. In a widely publicized liquor case in 1884, the Macleod Gazette charged that Superintendent Cotton, the presiding magistrate, was "rather a dangerous person to hold in his absolute power the liberties of the people." [36] In another case, the Regina Leader, though promising not to "denounce the tyranny of Col. Herchmer in the manner we should," went on to point out that "this man, a magistrate and a police officer, has, by using the alarming powers placed in his hands, caused the law to be strained in order to gratify what everybody knows was a desire to avenge fancied wrongs suffered by himself and his brethren." [37]

Another charge leveled at the police was that they were doing their duty with a mercenary object in view. This accusation stemmed from the fact that half of the fine imposed in a conviction was usually given to the informant, in most cases a member of the N.W.M.P., as a reward. Superintendent Gagon, commanding the Regina district, suggested that the practice of rewarding police informants be discontinued because of the "great amount of discredit which it brought to the force." [38] His suggestion was acted upon and the practice was terminated soon after.

A final point of criticism was the power of search without warrant granted to peace officers under the liquor regulations. "What security is there for life and property," asked the Prince Albert Times, "if police are going to be allowed to enter stables, haylofts, etc., in the dead of night, lighting matches as they have been doing." [39] "The contemptible means," it continued, "to which members of the force resort in order to find a cache of whisky has led us to believe that the duties-so far from being unpleasant-harmonize with the dispositions of those on whom they devolve." In 1892 before the Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic, Hugh Cayley, the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Calgary, testified that the Mounted Police were "looked upon as the terror of the country because they possessed these extraordinary powers of search." [40]

The Mounted Police even lost the vital co-operation of the courts. Two judicial decisions by a Calgary judge seriously handicapped police investigations. The first of these concerned the unpopular police powers of search. Under the prohibitory laws peace officers had the right to search "without the necessity of any intervention or process of law." [41] Following a test case in 1888, these powers were drastically curbed. The Hon. Mr. Justice Roleau of the Territorial Supreme Court ruled that the Mounted Police had no right to search saloons or any other premises without a warrant, "unless they see liquor." [42] "By this ruling," lamented Assistant Commissioner Herchmer, "it is nearly impossible for us to prevent the sale of liquor."

In the same year, Judge Roleau also ruled that liquor, once admitted into the territory on a permit, could be held by anyone whether he was the party to whom the permit was originally issued or not. [43] Referring to this decision, Commissioner Herchmer complained that large quantities of liquor being held for sale could now be protected by the transference of the permit "stubs." [44] In the Fort Macleod area, reported Superintendent Steele, "liquor is sold openly across the counter without fear or favour." "If an attempt is made to seize it," he continued, "a permit is produced either in the name of the owner "or of some friend for whom he is storing it." [45]

Convictions became scarcer as loopholes were found in the law. Western lawyers begin to pride themselves on the number of liquor cases they were able to quash on technicalities. Magistrates seemed to make it a point to dismiss cases on the flimsiest excuses. One of them accepted a defendant's contention that he bad "brought in" rather than "imported" liquor from Manitoba. The argument being that the term "imported" only referred to goods coming in from a foreign country. In another case, Judge Roleau acquitted the accused on the grounds that "it did not come within the province of the court to presume that whisky was an intoxicant." [46]

Judges and politicians frequently used their influence or authority to circumvent the regulations regarding liquor permits. One member of the Territorial Assembly testified in 1892 that he had "made it a rule to endorse every application submitted to him." [47] In 1887 the Regina Leader reported that there were "fourteen saloons in operation in Calgary where liquor could be bought for twenty-five cents a glass." [48] When the local commanding officer, Superintendent McIllree, was asked to explain his failure to administer the law; he simply pointed out the utter uselessness of trying to enforce the liquor act under the existing conditions. He had strongly recommended, he reported, against any of the saloon keepers being issued with permits, but his recommendations had been overruled "by the personal exertions of the judge of the Supreme Court and the members of the legislative assembly." [49]

By 1886 it was clear that the policy of rigorous enforcement of a law which had become ambiguous to the public was failing. To continue with it would not only discredit the Mounted Police as a law enforcement agency but also threaten its very survival. Already a meeting of three hundred citizens of Calgary had sent a telegram to the Prime Minister calling for the withdrawal of the Mounted Police from their city. [50] It was time for a sober reconsideration of the force's objectives. Frederick White, the Comptroller, favoured a policy of relaxation, but Ottawa did not press its view. [51] Prohibition had become a controversial political issue in eastern Canada and Macdonald was reluctant to get embroiled in the arguments over its enforcement. The federal government did complicate the matter, however, by agreeing to Lieutenant-Governor Royal's plan to legalize the sale of 4% beer. Most of the officers in the force took a realistic view of the situation and publicly called for a change in the law as the only solution. Typical of these was Superintendent Perry (Commissioner 1900-1923), who argued that the open evasion of the present law made it ineffective, that it drained the country of its resources, failed to stop drunkenness, was discriminatory and in any case unenforceable. [52]

This view, however, was not shared by Lawrence Herchmer, who took over the command of the force from Irvine in the spring of 1886. The new commissioner took a reactionary position on the question of enforcing the liquor laws, calling for an increase in the powers of the police to assist them in returning the country to prohibition. This, he agreed, could be enforced as it had a decade earlier by curtailing the permit system and removing the legal technicalities which had made enforcement difficult. [53] Herchmer believed that the public's objection to prohibition could be overcome by the introduction of four per cent beer. Near beer, he argued, would become an acceptable substitute for the stronger alcoholic beverages. When four per cent beer was legalized in 1888, Herchmer set an example by permitting its sale in the canteens at Mounted Police posts. He hoped that this would keep the men in barracks and away from the liquor in the local saloons. One consequence of this action was that prominent critics of his policy brought charges against him for importing 1,000 gallons of beer to the Regina barracks without a permit. The case was dismissed, however.

Disagreeing with many of his officers, the Commissioner counselled the continuation of a strict policy of enforcement regardless of the consequences. This eventually brought charges of harrassment against the police and greatly increased public resentment. In 1887 he issued the following instructions to his divisional commanders:

If you find that you cannot obtain a conviction in a whiskey case make it as uncomfortable as possible for the dealers as you can, by frequently searching their places at inconvenient hours. If you secure a conviction, invariably award the full penalty allowed by law. [54]

The measures taken as a result of this policy led the Mayor of Calgary to describe the action of the police as "arbitrary, capricious and tyrannical." [55] The Prince Albert Times, meanwhile, suggested that the Mounted Police "has outlived its usefulness as a force." [56]

Although well-intentioned, Herchmer's uncompromising and authoritarian manner did not endear him either to the settlers or to his own men. Already unpopular, his stand on the liquor question only increased public indignation towards him, further discredited the police and was a factor which eventually led to a judicial inquiry into his command of the force in 1891. What is more, his policy was no more successful than that of his predecessors. By 1890 he had to concede in his annual report that it had become "impossible to enforce the (liquor) act." [57]

Fortunately for the Mounted Police, the liquor question got caught up in the growing demand by the inhabitants of the Territories for autonomy from Ottawa. The police and their methods, were unpopular, but the public resented the permit system even more. In the fight for responsible government, prohibition was just one more injustice imposed upon the North-West by the federal government, one more piece of legislation which should be under local control. As a result, public opinion focused upon changing the law rather than removing its enforcers.

In 1888, an important political development occurred in the Territories which gave a strong impetus to the movement for self-government. In that year the number of elected members of the Territorial Council reached twenty-one. Under the Territory's constitution it was provided that the Council should be transformed into a Legislative Assembly once this magic number was reached. Frederick Haultain, the Member for Macleod, who led the group seeking self-government, had already urged in 1887 that the Territorial Council obtain control over liquor legislation. Prohibition versus licence now became a political issue in the Territories. During the election for the Assembly in 1891, the majority of the candidates pledged themselves to a referendum on the permit system and the licensed sale of liquor. The Calgary Herald hailed their successful election with the headline, "Prohibition Doomed". [58] The federal government, meanwhile, had passed legislation giving the Assembly the power to repeal the provisions of the North-West Territories Act, relating to prohibition. The Assembly didn't waste any time. On January 6, 1892, it passed an ordinance which abolished the permit system and provided for the legal sale of liquor in licensed premises. The new law came into effect on May 1st of the same year, bringing an end of the great experiment in prohibition, much to the relief of the North-West Mounted Police.

The bitter experience of enforcing prohibition was not quickly forgotten by the Mounted Police. Its lessons were to influence the Force's outlook for many years. On the one hand, it generated a firm resolve to avoid becoming again entangled in the enforcement of controversial social legislation. On the other, it was just another part of the larger problem which touched upon the future role of the force on the prairies. Was Macdonald's unique semi-military police a temporary organization which would be disbanded once the frontier gave way to settlement and urban growth, or would it transform itself to meet the changing needs of police work in the west? This was a question which was increasingly asked as the Territories advanced towards self-government. It was not answered in 1905 when the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were established. The Force continued to police the new provinces by contract, but the arrangement was not considered permanent.

The Mounted Police themselves had little doubt about their role, and their experience with prohibition made them very reluctant to change it. Commissioner Perry spoke for most of his officers when he explained, as he often did after 1900, that the task of the force was the policing of the frontier, the bringing of law and order to the country's unorganized territories. The Commissioner drew a clear distinction between the character of a "Mounted Police" and a "Civil Police." It was the function of the latter to police established rural and urban communities. The enforcement of municipal ordinances and provincial liquor laws was the task of a "Civil Police."

Prohibition was to be a factor in determining the force's future. Perry doubted that the arrangement with the new provinces would be permanent, and he was resolved not to become embroiled in enforcing unpopular liquor laws again. By 1910 the "Banish the Bar" movement had become a strong political issue in Alberta and Saskatchewan. As the two provinces moved towards a re-introduction of prohibition, Perry decided to take the initiative. In 1912 he informed the provincial governments that the Mounted Police would no longer enforce provincial liquor licencing regulations. As a result Edmonton and Regina developed their own provincial police forces, which gradually assumed more and more responsibility for enforcing provincial laws, including prohibition when it was re-introduced. Perry's action was one factor that eventually led to the withdrawal of the Mounted Police from the two provinces (except for the enforcement of federal statutes).

Post-war conditions led to a complete re-organization of the Force and its duties. In 1920 it became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with nation-wide jurisdiction for federal policing. The legacy of enforcing prohibition lingered on, however. While negotiating the terms of a contract to police the Province of Saskatchewan in 1928, Commissioner Starnes endeavoured to exempt the force from the necessity of enforcing the controversial provincial liquor laws. Starnes, who had been an officer in the N.W.M.P. in the 1880s, was not successful. It took another decade before the bitter memories of the permit system were finally extinguished.


1. See Edmonton Bulletin, March 28, 1881 and Saskatchewan Herald, May 8, 1881.

2. Public Archives of Canada, R.G. 18A 1, R.C.M.P. Papers, W. Anderson to U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1876?

3. Canada, Sessional Papers, Annual Report of the Commissioner of the NorthWest Mounted Police, 1874, p. 63. (Hereafter referred to as the N.W.M.P. Annual Report).

4. J. M. McDougall, On Western Plains, (Toronto, 1911), p. 185.

5. Statutes of Canada, 38 Vic., Cap. 49.

6. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1875, p. 9. (unpublished).

7. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1879, Appendix "C".

8. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1876, p. 25.

9. For a discussion of the drinking habits of pioneer west see: James H. Gray, Booze, (Toronto, 1972).

10. Manitoba Free Press, July 31, 1876.

11. Quoted in Qu'Appelle Progress, October 10, 1890.

12. P.A.C., R.G. 18.B.2, 78, R.C.M.P. Papers, Steele to Herchmer, June 12, 1892.

13. Debates, House of Commons, April 11, 1882.

14. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1882, p. 12.

15. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1886, p. 19.

16. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1885, p. 14.

17. Lethbridge News, January 26, 1888.

18. Statutes of Canada, 38 Vie. Cap. 49.; 51 Vic. Cap. 19.

19. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1895, Report of the Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic, p. 197, (hereafter referred to as the Hickson Report).

20. P.A.C., R.G. 18.B3, R.C.M.P. Papers, Herchmer to White, April 16, 1888.

21. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1886, p. 53.

22. Calgary Herald, May 7, 1884.

23. Macleod Gazette, March 2, 1886.

24. Hickson Report, No. 21, p. 184.

25. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1885, p. 2.

26. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1886, p. 39.

27. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1885, p. 14.

28. Ibid., p. 2.

29. Macleod Gazette, March 10, 1885.

30. Prince Albert Times, December 3, 1886.

31. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1885, p. 14.

32. Medicine Hat Times, September 10, 1887.

33. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1886, p. 53.

34. Ibid., p. 13.

35. Macleod Gazette, February 21, 1887.

36. Ibid., October 24, 1884.

37. Regina Leader, August 16, 1883.

38. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1886, p. 34.

39. Prince Albert Times, December 9, 1887.

40. Hickson Report, p. 190.

41. Statutes of Canada, 41 Vic., Cap. 36.

42. P.A.C., R.C.M.P. Papers, R.G. 18, Al, Herchmer to Herchmer, January 25, 1888.

43. Ibid.

44. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1888, p. 11.

45. P.A.C., R.C.M.P. Papers, R.G. 18, B.1, Steele to Herchmer, July 23, 1890.

46. Ibid., McIllree to Herchmer, December 22, 1888.

47. Hickson Report, p. 13.

48. Regina Leader, November 8, 1887.

49. P.A.C., R.C.M.P. Papers, R.G., A.1, Mclllree to Herchmer, December 29, 1888.

50. P.A.C., Macdonald Papers, Vol. 421, Telegram, Mayor of Calgary to Macdonald, November 10, 1885.

51. P.A.C., R.C.M.P. Papers, R.G. 18, A.1, White to Herchmer, September 27, 1890.

52. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1886, p. 53.

53. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1887, p. 10.

54. P.A.C., R.C.M.P. Papers, R.G. 18, B.3., Herchmer to Neale, July 7, 1887.

55. P.A.C., Macdonald Papers, Murdoch to Macdonald, October 27, 1888.

56. Prince Albert Times, December 9, 1887.

57. N.W.M.P., Annual Report, 1890, p. 4.

58. Calgary Herald, November 9, 1891.

Page revised: 22 May 2010