A Condensed History of Canada’s Colonial Cops

How the RCMP has secured the imperialist power of the north

“The myth of the RCMP is that they came to protect us from
the whisky traders and bad guys. They came to protect the conqueror’s
property and they still protect the conqueror’s property.”

— Maria Campbell, 1989

 

Canada was only six years old as a nation-state when it established the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873. This original name for what would become the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mountain Police) outlined a colonial purpose, as the Northwest was not yet fully part of Canada at this time. The territory had been fraudulently purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) three years earlier and remained largely under the effective control of Indigenous nations such as the Métis, Cree, Anishinaabe, Dene, and Nakota.


Indigenous effective control ran contrary to all fraudulent claims to the territory by Canada, since the HBC had never purchased the land from Indigenous peoples in the first place in order to legitimately sell it to anyone — the Canadian/British military had to be sent to Red River (Winnipeg) in 1870 to remove the Métis-led provisional government that had been established there the year before.


Conventional Canadian mythology maintains that the RCMP was created to protect Indigenous people from marauding Americans at Cypress Hills. But even this whitewashed story underlines the force’s role in expanding and maintaining the borders of Canada while facilitating the development of infrastructure such as the Canadian Pacific Railway across Indigenous lands by whatever means necessary, from forcibly relocating Indigenous people to breaking workers’ strikes.


In reality, Canada did not seek to protect Indigenous people but to protect itself and settler corporate interests from further Indigenous resistance that would occur if settlers were allowed to run amok and Indigenous peoples decided to ally themselves with anyone other than Canada. Such resistance had already taken place at Red River and would soon raise its head again in the Northwest Resistance of 1885 in what is now called Saskatchewan.


Canada also desperately needed a paramilitary police organization to enforce its new oppressive laws, the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 (later updated as the Indian Act in 1876), which were designed to control Indigenous peoples and redistribute their lands to settlers, in violation of the Numbered Treaties


In 1874, Canadian Minister of Justice A. A. Dorion admitted that the RCMP’s mission was in part to “give confidence to peaceable Indians and intending settlers.” The Prime Minister of Canada himself, John A. Macdonald, confirmed in 1884 that “the business of the Mounted Police is principally to keep peace between Whitemen + Indians.” 


The RCMP even reprinted a Prince Albert Daily Herald article in its own RCMP Quarterly magazine in 1961 that claimed Métis leader Louis Riel was “mainly responsible for the unsettled conditions which led to the founding of the Force.”


The RCMP’s first full-scale operation was launched in 1885 against the Métis and Cree resistance in what is now Saskatchewan. But this military engagement resulted in several resounding defeats and forced retreats for the RCMP at the hands of Indigenous warriors at the Battles of Duck Lake, Fort Pitt, Fish Creek, Cut Knife, and Frenchman’s Butte, as well as an incident at Battleford where the RCMP simply hid inside its fort as Cree warriors briefly reoccupied the town. The RCMP was so ineffective that it needed to be saved by the Canadian Army (with additional British support and leadership), which eventually was able to defeat the Indigenous resistance, leading to the judicial hangings of Louis Riel and eight Cree and Nakota/Assiniboine men. The site where Riel was hanged is still today used as the RCMP training academy.


The RCMP then began to enforce an illegal pass system on the Prairies that restricted the movements of Indigenous people on and off reserves, to suppress Native cultural traditions such as the Sun Dance, and to apprehend Indigenous children to be forced into residential schools as part of Canada’s (ongoing) assimilation policy. 


RCMP commander Sam Steele, a veteran fighter against the Métis and Cree, in 1891 wrote a letter to the police force’s commissioner recommending that Blackfoot bands be barred from participating in the Sun Dance, calling it a “relic of barbarism that should be stamped out,” also claiming that it supposedly incited males to cattle killing and horse stealing.


The RCMP was initially modeled on the British Empire’s Royal Irish Constabulary, and its early ranks even included officers from that force. In 1899, RCMP officers took part in the Second Boer War in South Africa to assist the British Empire. Since then, the RCMP’s overseas occupations have not ceased, with officers currently deployed in Haiti, Mali, Palestine, and Iraq.

 


On the Prairies and also in Inuit territory in the north, the RCMP was more than just a police force; it also occupied many other repressive functions usually thought of today as belonging to other branches of government. In some cases, the RCMP was judge, jury, and executioner.


In Inuit territory, the RCMP killed thousands of sled dogs, a crucial spiritual and practical relation of the Inuit people. As with the purposeful wiping out of the buffalo on the Prairies, Canada meant to deprive the Inuit of their means of subsistence and spiritual/cultural life.


In 1919, during the Winnipeg General Strike, the RCMP opened fire on a crowd of workers, killing two and injuring dozens, helping to crush the strike and win greater significance for the force in the eyes of the capitalist ruling class.


In 1931, the RCMP attacked a demonstration of striking coal miners in Estevan, Saskatchewan, killing three of them. The On To Ottawa Trek of 1935, launched by relief-camp workers in Vancouver, was attacked by the RCMP in Regina, Saskatchewan, resulting in a riot, two deaths, dozens of injuries on both sides, and more than 100 arrests.


The RCMP in 1923 stationed a detachment on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario. In response, Chief Deskaheh wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in opposition to what he called the Indian Department’s desire to place and house “Mounted Police with horses upon Indian lands without a colour of justice, right, or cause.”


The following year, Colonel C. E. Morgan, a former colonial administrator in South Africa now stationed on the reserve, along with some 20 RCMP officers raided the council house at Six Nations to remove the traditional confederacy chiefs and replace them with the Indian Act band-council system. In 1959, the RCMP raided and made arrests again when traditionalists reoccupied the council house.


During World War II, in March of 1941, the RCMP began forcing all males of Japanese ancestry above the age of 16 to register with them, several months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Later, the RCMP would engage in intimidation tactics and the removal of families of Japanese ancestry (mostly Canadian citizens) to internment camps, as well as the deportation of families to Japan.

 


In 1968, RCMP officers arrested dozens of Mohawks at Akwesasne who were blocking the international bridge and border crossing that divides their reserve and wider territory between Canada and the United States, restricting their movements on their own land.


In the wake of the Quebec separatist and workers’ movements of the 1970s, the RCMP was revealed to have engaged in a vast array of criminal activities itself, including office break-ins and even a bombing, which caused RCMP Security Service Corporal Robert Samson to lose fingers and hearing. Seventeen RCMP officers were charged with dozens of criminal offences following a Quebec inquiry.


In 1974, the RCMP clashed with participants in the Native People’s Caravan in front of the parliament buildings in Ottawa. The caravan had started in Vancouver and picked up participants along the way to Ottawa in an attempt to further the Indigenous resistance movement and bring grievances directly to the federal government after armed reoccupations of Cache Creek and Anicinabe Park earlier that same year.

 


Throughout the 1980s, there was an escalation of RCMP repression of Indigenous resistance across Canada, as for example when dozens were arrested at a blockade by members of the Blood Tribe (Blackfoot) over a reserve land dispute at Cardston, Alberta, in 1980; when 72 people were arrested at Haida Gwaii during logging blockades in 1985; when 27 Lubicon Cree were arrested at roadblocks against oil development in 1988; and through the latter half of the decade when some 250 arrests were made of Innu people who repeatedly reoccupied and shut down the imperialist NATO air base in Labrador whose test flights were disrupting their hunting and the Innu way of life.


The RCMP’s willful negligence in protecting Indigenous people from violent settler attacks was highlighted in this period by two particularly brutal incidents that led to significant court cases and inquiries:


One of these incidents was the failure of the RCMP to properly investigate the murder of a Cree woman, Helen Betty Osborne, by four men, only one of whom was convicted, 17 years after the fact, which led in part to the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry launched in 1988.


The other case was the murder of Leo LaChance, a Cree man who was shot and killed in 1991 by a Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation member, Carney Nerland, at a gun shop in Saskatchewan, only for it to be revealed at trial that Nerland was also an RCMP informant. Nerland was put in a witness protection program after serving only three years for manslaughter.


In 1993, the Innu at Davis Inlet in Labrador ousted the RCMP and a provincial court judge from their community and prevented their return until 1995. The social-programs coordinator at the community’s rehabilitation center, Prote Poker, told the Canadian Press that suicide rates and intoxicant use went down after the RCMP was evicted. “The feeling of power that people had at that time was overwhelming,” explained Poker. “It felt good.”


In 1995, hundreds of RCMP officers with military armored personnel carriers (authorized by the NDP government) laid siege to Secwepemc sovereigntists at Ts’Peten (Gustafsen Lake) in British Columbia, deploying explosives and firing thousands of rounds against land defenders. The trial of the Ts’Peten defenders revealed a self-proclaimed “smear campaign” by the RCMP, in collaboration with the corporate media.


Tight control and manipulation of the media had become crucial to Canada in the wake of the 1990 Oka Crisis, when Native people across the country blockaded vital economic infrastructure in solidarity with the Mohawks under siege by the army. Canada became determined to try to limit Native solidarity in the future, through both media management and so-called “self-government” agreements with neocolonial Native organizations already funded by the Canadian government.

 


Throughout the 2000s, the RCMP raided the St’at’imc land-reclamation camp Sutikalh as well as the homes of members of the West Coast Warrior Society and Native Youth Movement. The force also arrested Secwepemc land defenders blocking ski-resort development and Tahltan elders blocking mining and methane-gas exploitation in BC throughout the decade.


Between 1999 and 2001, the RCMP was involved in violently suppressing the fishing rights of Mi’kmaq people at Burnt Church in the Maritimes, despite these rights being confirmed in the historic Peace and Friendship Treaties and then reconfirmed in a Supreme Court decision in 1999.


In 2013, heavily armed RCMP officers attacked Mi’kmaq anti-fracking land defenders at Elsipogtog (near Rexton, New Brunswick), arresting dozens but also losing six police cruisers to fire in the process, a reminder of the defeat that the force first felt when up against the Métis and Cree peoples on the battlefields of the Prairies 128 years earlier.


The RCMP’s harassment of the Colten Boushie family in Saskatchewan in 2016, with Boushie having been the target of deadly settler criminality and violence, reflected the RCMP’s history of underserving Indigenous communities while simultaneously revictimizing Native people, as in the previous Leo LaChance and Helen Betty Osborne cases.


Also in 2016, the RCMP arrested Inuit and Innu people blocking the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, and were revealed to have launched a cross-Canada surveillance operation entitled “Project Sitka” just a few years earlier in order to build profiles of individuals and to monitor all forms of Indigenous dissent, including completely legal calls for a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 


Project Sitka was only the latest in the RCMP’s history of surveillance and intimidation operations carried out against Indigenous resistance organizing, from attempts in the 1920s to disrupt the Indian Defense League to intensive monitoring of the Red Power movement in the 1960s and ’70s.


The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released in 2019 detailed RCMP negligence in dealing with the systemic epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls, while also relating personal accounts of sexual assaults committed by RCMP officers themselves. The inquiry was the culmination of decades of organizing, such as that of the Indigenous women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside who have been marching annually in honor of missing Indigenous women and girls since 1991.


An RCMP officer in Haiti was found by a 2013 U.N. investigation to have engaged in “sexual exploitation” after a Haitian woman filed a complaint of sexual assault against him with the Haitian police. CBC found information confirming that six Canadian officers had committed sexual violations in Haiti but that in Canada there were “meek or, in some cases, no consequences for Canadian officers who violate both the RCMP and the UN’s rules of sexual misconduct while deployed abroad.”


U.N. “peacekeepers” in fact are regularly alleged to have committed sexual assaults against the populations they’re entrusted with protecting around the world, leading to a specific campaign aimed at holding them accountable called Code Blue.


Previously, in 2004, two RCMP officers in Prince George, BC, had been suspended with pay after being accused of buying sex from underage girls, in relation to an investigation of local judge David Ramsay that resulted in him pleading guilty to five charges of breach of trust and sexual assault against Indigenous girls in the area. Constables Joseph Kohut and Justin Harris escaped RCMP disciplinary action on a technicality, because the RCMP took too long to bring forward its case.


In May of 2019, CBC reported on security footage that depicts a Kelowna RCMP officer harassing an Indigenous woman reporting a sexual assault at the local detachment, asking leading and revictimizing questions that Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale would later call “absolutely abhorrent.”

 


The armed invasion and arrests in Wet’suwet’en territory carried out by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) this February that have sparked cross-country Indigenous resistance have been about more than just the enforcement of a court injunction on behalf of a natural-gas pipeline company. 

The RCMP may serve as Canada’s federal police force, but in relation to Indigenous peoples it is not so much a domestic policing agency as an occupying foreign army.
 


In the context of a previous police raid of Wet’suwet’en territory a year ago, the RCMP installed a special remote detachment along the forest-service road that leads to the decade-long-running Unist’ot’en camp and healing center. The police force has continuously set up arbitrary exclusion zones in the area, stopping and arresting Indigenous people and their supporters without cause, as it facilitates the work of the Coastal GasLink pipeline company that is destroying the territory of Wet’suwet’en clans. 

Given this history, current acts of police aggression against Indigenous peoples can be seen as part of a colonial continuum, and it becomes clear that only total systemic change can address the structural oppression that Canadian and other settler-state police forces both defend and partake in themselves.

This piece is an edited version of A Concise Chronology of Canada’s Colonial Cops, originally published on December 21, 2019 on M. Gouldhawke’s blog.