A Brief History of Policing in Canada

For many Canadians the presence of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) on highways and city streets is a common sight. Not only is the RCMP Canada's national police force, they also serve as the official police for most of Canada's provinces and territories. Only Ontario, Quebec and part of Newfoundland have a provincial police force (Newfoundland's is limited to Saint John's and Corner Brook).  How did some provinces end up with the RCMP policing their roads and towns, while others instituted their own force? Today we look at the history of policing in Canada.

The RCMP was created as Canada's North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873 in response to belligerent Americans crossing the border, as a Heritage Minute famously reminds us, but the history of policing in Canada starts much earlier. Pre-Confederation British North America developed several types of police forces, initially in a municipal urban environment. Some permanent constables were first hired in Halifax as early as 1815, while Toronto established their police force in 1834, both under control of municipal authorities.

The Rebellions of 1837-38 in Lower Canada (present day Quebec) spurred the colonial government to create larger and more expansive police forces under control of the executive. During the 'emergency' in Quebec, when the threat of Patriotes' rebels was highest, trial by jury and habeas corpus was suspended as the British rapidly expanded police forces to maintain order.  Afterwards, permanent forces were established in Montreal and Quebec City.  A rural constabulary also extended into the surrounding area where fear of rebellion lingered after 1838.  It was disbanded under a new government in the 1840s, but urban forces remained.

In 1848, the colonies of Lower and Upper Canada united to form the appropriately titled United Canadas, of Canada East and Canada West.  Tory riots over the Rebellion Losses Bill, compensating those who had suffered economic losses from the rebellions a decade earlier, again pushed the government to expand colonial police. While it might be easy to assume that police developed purely in response to social disorder, it's worthwhile to remember that Canadian colonial society was a part of a much larger trend towards state control.  Police represented one arm of a larger state project. Few contemporaries would have debated it within those terms, of course.  Instead, the debate centred on provincial police forces versus municipal police forces as advocates resisted the provincial or federal control throughout the mid-19th century.  By Confederation in 1867, most police forces were under municipal control.

These initial police forces were eventually replaced by provincials ones, such as Manitoba and Quebec's provincial police that formed in 1870, British Columbia's in 1872, Ontario in 1909, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1917, and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1927 and 1928 respectively. Newfoundland first established a regional force in 1872.  Greg Marquis has written much about Canadian police forces, and he argues that their development in the 19th century was based on the model of the Royal Irish Constabulary, rather than the tradition of English constables you would find today in England.  In Ireland, the police were seen by the British as a necessary force to control an often unruly Irish population.  They were a paramilitary force rather than a civilian constabulary – with ranks and strict organizational structure rather than a more “easy-going” approach to law and order. Canada also created a federal “Dominion Police” whose primary purpose was to guard government buildings, but the more well-known federal force was the North-West Mounted Police created in 1873.

The NWMP was formed in response to the massacre of a group of Indigenous people by American whiskey traders in Cypress Hills.  Conservative Prime Minister John A. MacDonald had already considered the idea of a mounted police force and the Cypress Hills incident finally convinced him of its necessity.  Originally he had envisioned a force composed primarily of Métis with Canadian officers, but the Red River resistance that led Manitoba into Confederation changed his mind.  Instead the NWMP was formed entirely of Canadians (or at least, Europeans).  It took on both civil and military duties as they patrolled the Canadian frontier. The Mounted Police differed considerably from a municipal force as it was a paramilitary organization composed of outsiders (outsiders to the frontier which they patrolled) and they policed an newly formed society (or none at all) rather than an existing one.  Whereas municipal forces reflected a sort of civil agreement between individual and state for their safety, the NWMP was more an extension of state authority onto a sparse civilian or Indigenous population.

In 1885, the Northwest Rebellion demonstrated the limits of the NWMP after they were soundly defeated at Duck Lake by Métis forces.  Their existence was questioned by the newly elected Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier in 1896, but it was justified by their policing of the Yukon gold rush and their role as a provincial police force in provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan beginning in 1905.  In 1904, they were granted title “Royal” for their thirty years of service and the NWMP became the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP).

The First World War greatly affected the RNWMP as the government sought to monitor and control the populations of “enemy aliens,” immigrants from Austria, Germany and Ukraine and other enemy nations. While they had been originally formed to monitor foreign Americans, during the First World War the Mounted Police increasingly assumed the responsibilities of state security in a more direct way.  Their increased “intelligence” role stretched the force's resources. Their diminishing effectiveness and financial pressure led to the decision for Alberta and Saskatchewan to create their own provincial police force in 1917.  At the same time, the pressure of the First World War (and no doubt the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution) led to stronger and more active labour movement in Canada.  The RNWMP began closely following communists, or at least labour activists who were considered communists.  The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike seemingly underlined the potential dangers of the labour movement and Canada experienced its own “Red Scare.”  The Mounted Police were forbade from unionizing  in 1918, since the police were responsible for “the maintenance of order in connection with strikes, lockouts, or labour disturbances.”  The government, it seemed, feared any sort of untoward influence on the force they used to suppress Canadian socialists and labour activists.

In 1920, the Dominion Police and the RNWMP merged into the familiar Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  The next two decades was a period of uncertainty for the force, as successive Canadians governments wondered at their utility outside the pressures of wartime and without any sort of regular policing role.  Ultimately, they moved further towards state security and emerged as a national organization that could coordinate national policing efforts on drugs or immigration.  Their flexibility allowed them to survive, as they could be ordinary police officers enforcing federal statutes, but also deal with “threats” to national order such as riots and strikes, and as a national security service.

From 1919 to 1928 the RCMP had no provincial police role.  In 1928, Saskatchewan requested they return to their policing duties, and Alberta followed suit in 1932.  While cost was an important factor, especially during the hard years of the Depression after 1929, both provinces were also interested in the RCMP's capacity to maintain public order and dealing with unrest, especially from labour and the unemployed. By 1950, they were contracted as provincial police forces in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, British Columbia and Newfoundland.  Today only the Ontario Provincial Police and Quebec's police, la Sûreté du Québec, still operate across their province.  Newfoundland maintains the Constabulary of St John's and Corner Brook, but most of their province is under RCMP jurisdiction. As contract police, the RCMP were asked by other jurisdictions to take over policing operations. Currently the RCMP operates in eight provinces, three territories, 200 municipalities, and 192 First Nations reserves.

The province's contracts with the RCMP are renewed occasionally, the most recent being in 2012.  The provinces could theoretically one day reform their provincial police forces, but it's unlikely.  It's been nearly 150 years of RCMP policing and their presence and capabilities have been entrenched in the jurisdictions that they patrol. They were removed from their explicit intelligence role in the late 1970s, as we've discussed previously, but they continue their duties as a national police force and promoting Canadian security, though today they are more likely to investigate terrorists than communists.