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Sir John A. Macdonald
The Great Lone Land

Called "The Great Lone Land" by officers who traversed it, "Rupert's Land" by the Hudson's Bay Company and "home" by nomadic buffalo-hunting native tribes, the Canadian Northwest officially became a part of Canada on July 15, 1870. A small part of it along the banks of the Red River became the new province of Manitoba. The remainder, extending across the prairies, was designated the Northwest Territories, federally administered by a lieutenant governor and council.

Sir John A. Macdonald and the North West Mounted Police

In the 1870s a new wave of traders from outposts of the American northwest crossed the border (to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company) into the foothill country of present day Alberta, the tribal home of the Blackfoot. These tough, adventurous men, representing many nationalities, often veterans of the Civil War, had little concern for the welfare of Canada's aboriginal peoples. They soon established themselves in fortified posts whose colourful names reveal something of their picaresque character – Slide out, Kipp, Standoff and the most notorious of all, Whoop-up. By 1873, these "free traders", as they were called, had captured most of the Blackfoot trade. The newcomers brought cheap whiskey from Chicago and St. Louis distilleries; it was often adulterated with various ingredients to potentiate its effect and increase profits.

Several observers reported the deteriorating conditions on the western plains to Ottawa. One of these observers, Lt. Butler, after traveling across the northwest in 1871, wrote: "The institutions of Law and Order, as understood in civilized communities, are wholly unknown." Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, became directly responsible for establishing Canada's authority in the newly acquired territories.

The violence which had accompanied American expansion onto the western plains in the previous decade was uppermost in Macdonald's mind as he considered the problem of establishing law and order on Canada's frontier. A series of wars with native tribes on the plains followed the rush of settlers and miners into the American West. These wars cost the United States government millions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of troops and settlers. Macdonald was aware that Canada did not have the resources to repeat the American experience. He was determined that law and order must be established in advance of settlement. Macdonald's answer to this thorny problem was a paramilitary force of mounted police, trained and equipped for plains warfare, but with primarily civil responsibilities; it would be the advance guard of settlement, establishing friendly relations with the Indian tribes and maintaining peace as settlers arrived. The model for the proposed force was the Royal Irish Constabulary, which had been used as a pattern for organizing numerous police forces throughout the British Empire.

* This information is courtesy of the RCMP