Manitoba History: Review: William M. Baker, ed., The Mounted Police and Prairie Society, 1873-1919
by Adele Perry
The Royal North West Mounted Police is a staple of English-Canadian popular culture and Prairie historiography alike. William M. Baker’s edited collection, The Mounted Police and Prairie Society, 1873-1919 draws together an impressive number of articles documenting different components of the Mounted Police’s experience on the prairies in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The result is an uneven collection but a powerful testament to the Mounted Police’s ability to serve as a vehicle for Western Canadian social history.
This is a large collection, and the editor has sensibly divided the nineteen articles into five substantive ‘Sections’ that are book-ended by an introduction and an epilogue. The articles in the first Section includes grapples with the interaction between the Mounted Police and various Plains Aboriginal peoples. The second Section is made up of a relatively small (three) number of articles analysing law enforcement. The third Section tackles a range of what the editor dubs ‘social issues,’ including the Mounted Police’s relations with strikers, prostitutes and minority groups. The fourth Section chronicles the Mounties themselves — their relationships with settlers, their leisure activities, and their perceived and essentially mythical characters. The fifth and final Section entitled ‘Crisis and Change’ features three different historians offering competing explanations for the transformation of the Mounted Police into a national security agency after World War One.
The articles analyse a wide range of topics and do so from a wide range of perspectives and in a wide range of academic styles. All but the introduction and epilogue were originally written for another purpose some decades ago, and some within the last few years. ‘Section A: First Nations’ is quite literally all over the map. It includes Desmond Morton’s comparative study of Aboriginal-police relations in Canada and the United States, first published in 1977, and a chapter from a 1979 master’s thesis on the North-West Mounted Police and the Blackfoot. These are joined by John Jennings’ analysis of the relations between First Nations and ranchers, first published in 1975, and Brian Hubner’s innovative analysis of the North West Mounted Police’s efforts to control Aboriginal movement, published twenty years later. The section is capped by H. A. Dempsey’s creative reworking of Blackfoot oral narrative and police memoirs.
This remarkable diversity of approach, perspective and vantage-point continues throughout The Mounted Police and Prairie Society. It can be a strength. Where else can one read S. W. Horrall, the official historian of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, alongside Gregory S. Kealey, historian of the working-class and leader in the effort to have the archives of Canada’s security state opened to public scrutiny? By putting these discordant voices into dialogue, Baker opens up new avenues of historiographical debate. He also makes available scholarship—some of it hitherto unpublished, but most of it published elsewhere in article form—that has received too little circulation and, partially as a result, too little due. Articles like Walter Hilderbrandt’s thoughtful analysis of Fort Battleford and the colonial politics of architecture, first published in the Journal of Popular Culture in 1980, come as a pleasant surprise.
The Mounted Police and Prairie Society does not always manage this multiplicity of perspectives to its best advantage. The collection deserves a stronger editorial hand. Baker’s introduction helpfully situates the articles within broad historiographical changes that have occurred since the Mounted Police’s centennial in 1973, and S. R Hewitt’s epilogue draws some useful connections between popular culture and historical analyses of the Mounties. Beyond this there is little explanation to guide the reader through what can be dramatic shifts in style, argument, and approach. The fact that articles were written as much as twenty years apart is not sufficiently acknowledged or interrogated. Nor do the articles appear to have been edited for consistency. The result is that the reader must identify and interpret common or contradictory questions, themes, and arguments for themselves. The absence of a standard ‘Contributors’ section makes it difficult to even identify, let alone further research, the various authors.
Baker’s selection criteria can also be curious. To be sure, all of the articles were published since the Mounted Police Centennial in 1973-4 and all deal with Alberta, Saskatchewan, and, to a lesser extent, Manitoba. Yet some have an intentionally regional approach and others, like Kealey, deal with the prairies as part of a national study. Beyond this the inclusion of some pieces and the concomitant exclusion of others is a something of mystery. R. C. McLeod’s 1975 The NWMP and Law Enforcement, 1873-1905 is a fine and seminal study, but I am not sure we needed two of its chapters reprinted here. William Beahen’s “Abortion and Infanticide in Western Canada, 1874 to 1916: A Criminal Case Study” is a strangely-argued and thinly disguised anti-abortion rant. It is entirely unclear why it deserves readership beyond the Canadian Catholic Historical Association’s Historical Papers, where it was originally published. At the same time, recent scholarship like Sarah Carter’s pioneering analysis of North-West Mounted Police members’ relationships with Aboriginal women in 1997’s Capturing Women: The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada’s Prairie West never make it beyond the introduction’s footnotes.
Despite these inconsistencies, The Mounted Police and Prairie Society is a powerful testament to the richness of Western Canadian social history and to the ability of the Mounted Police to serve as an entry point to it. As the editor notes, the articles assembled here have little to say about women. But they have much to say about other components of Prairie society during a period of enormous social growth and strain. Through these articles we learn about both Natives and newcomers. We learn about homesteaders and immigrants. We learn about amateur theatre, strikers and spies, and about rough and official justice. Baker is correct to state that “The history of the Mounties opens doors to the exploration of an almost unlimited array of topics concerning the so-called pioneering era of the Canadian Plains.” [p vii]
The Mounted Police and Prairie Society is not the best analysis of the popular culture of the Mountie available—we have Michael Dawson’s The Mountie from Dime Novel to Disney (1998) for that. Nor is it the most thorough-going treatment of the Mounted Police’s work as a civilian police force—Gary Kinsman, Dieter K. Buse and Mercedes Steedman’s collection Whose National Security? Canadian State Surveillance and the Creation of Enemies (2000) clearly takes that honour. What The Mounted Police and Prairie Society does do, however, is remind us of how many aspects of Western Canadian social history have been investigated through the figure of the mounted policeman, and suggest some new ways that historians might analyse the Mounted Police and the society they both reflected and, for better or for worse and in so many ways, regulated.
Page revised: 14 October 2012Back to top of page