The Mild West
Canada’s West could have been a lot wilder than it was. Prior to 1874, law enforcement in the region was mostly left to officers at Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trading forts.
But the opening of the American West led to rampant lawlessness that sometimes spilled across the border.
When a group of Montana hunters and whisky traders massacred a band of Assiniboine people in the Cypress Hills in present-day southern Saskatchewan in 1873, the federal government acted quickly to establish a federal police force.
The North-West Mounted Police trekked west in 1874. One of its roles was to enforce controls on liquor sales that were creating havoc among First Nations communities.
Led by James Macleod, the NWMP minimized conflict, helped to establish treaty relations with Indigenous peoples, and cleared the way for orderly settlement.
One of the force’s most important roles was policing the construction of the new transcontinental railroad — a project that created special problems related to gambling, liquor, labour disputes, and prostitution.
When the Klondike gold rush was on, the force, led by the legendary Sam Steele, was in place to collect customs duties and to ensure fortune seekers had enough supplies to see them through winter.
They also guarded gold shipments and arbitrated disputes but tolerated gambling, prostitution, and drinking, so long as they didn’t take place on Sundays.
The force was also strict about controlling handguns, especially in towns.
Consequently, armed robbery and murder were far less common in the Canadian West compared with south of the border.
— Text by Nelle Oosterom