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  Men in Red

by Paul Yanko
Major James Walsh
- Photos courtesy the RCMP Heritage Centre, Regina
Major James Walsh

Note: the RCMP Centennial Museum is now closed. It has been replaced by the RCMP Heritage Centre.

The athletic, steely-eyed white man with a red coat and an outstretched hand struck Sioux Chief Sitting Bull as a brave person, indeed. Accompanied by only six men, this white man had just "dropped in" on the chief's 1,000-warrior encampment demanding an audience with the most powerful and feared Indian on the North American continent, the chief who one year earlier defeated Custer at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn.

RCMP Sunset Ceremony

Sitting Bull was curious. He shook hands with the white man. Then, through a translator, he listened attentively as Maj. James Walsh, of the North-West Mounted Police, proceeded to tell him he's welcome to stay in Canada so long as he obeys the laws of the land.

"People who break laws in this land, whether they be whites, blacks or browns, will not escape punishment," Walsh said.

Sitting Bull paused, and then laughed at the ridiculous situation: A man with six followers telling a powerful chief with a thousand braves what he must do? Yet, according to Sitting Bull biographer Grant MacEwan, the chief agreed with Walsh's request to meet with the Sioux council for a full briefing on Canadian laws.

Chief Sitting Bull
Chief Sitting Bull

In the four years Sitting Bull lived in what is now Saskatchewan, he came to respect and trust Walsh more than any other white man he knew. The respect was mutual.

And while the two strong-headed men engaged in heated arguments at times, the most important chief in North America soon came to realize Walsh and his "redcoats" were true to their word: They enforced the law equally among all residents of the West.

It was no easy task. Violence was escalating in some areas of the Canadian West, and the remainder was a tinderbox waiting for a match.

In 1870, the fledgling Canadian government purchased a large parcel of western land from the Hudson's Bay Company, with the intention of encouraging settlement in the region.

In what's now Saskatchewan and Alberta, the government sought to place peaceful homesteaders on farms. Instead, whiskey traders and bandits made murder and drunkenness the order of the day.

"Here large numbers of reckless men found their way, and simply did what they pleased, ruined the Indians, and brought on quarrels with them for the sake of gain," Samuel Steele, a founding member of the force, wrote in his autobiography.

In Manitoba, which borders Ontario, there was armed rebellion in 1870 by Metis people (French-Canadian and Indian blood) fighting for land rights. Meanwhile, well before Sitting Bull arrived, "American" Indians were fleeing the "Indian Wars" south of the border to take refuge, and perhaps incite violence, among their Canadian counterparts.

The final straw came in May, 1873, in the Cypress Hills area of what is now southwestern Saskatchewan, when a band of white "wolfers" from the United States and Canada massacred several dozen Assiniboia Indians over the alleged theft of horses.

"The massacre of so many of our aboriginal people at Cypress Hills accelerated the organization and dispatch of the North-West Mounted Police to the western frontier," says Dr. Bill Beahen, RCMP historian. "The Canadian government was determined that this police force would protect the western tribes from the violence which accompanied the settlement of the American frontier."

The North-West Mounted Police, as it was originally known, was born August 30, 1873, the result of a bill introduced in the Canadian House of Commons. (The force was conferred its "Royal" designation by King Edward VII in 1904, and became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920.)

It was the beginning of a world-famous force whose men in red came to symbolize a nation. Their stories are the drama and adventure that was the taming of the Canadian frontier. And their history comes to life at the RCMP Centennial Museum, located at the force's training depot in Regina.

"We've got more than 30,000 artifacts valued at about 25 million dollars," says curator William MacKay. Even with a sprawling 1,300 square metres of floor space, he adds, only a fraction are on display at any given time.

Louis Riel
An angry encounter with government land surveyors in 1869 helped establish Louis Riel as the leader of the Metis people.

Central among the these are the artifacts and documents relating the tale of Metis leader Louis Riel, a pivotal and still controversial figure in western Canadian history.

After leading Manitoba's Red River Rebellion in 1870, Riel was forced into exile in the United States. He was invited back to Canada in 1884 by Metis seeking land and legal status in an area that's now in Saskatchewan. Frustrated by government inaction on the issues, Riel in 1885 declared a provisional government at Batoche, about 75 kilometres northeast of present-day Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Fighting broke out a week later at Duck Lake when a small NWMP force of about 100 men, some of them volunteers, went up against the Metis and lost. This sparked the government to mobilize the Canadian Militia. The Metis, joined by disgruntled and starving Indians, fought well under the brilliant guerrilla-warfare tactics of Metis military commander Gabriel Dumont. But on May 12, 1885, they lost a decisive battle at Batoche and the rebellion was over. Riel was captured on May 15, tried in Regina and convicted of treason, and hanged in November.

Until recent years, this still-reverberating affair was known as "The Riel Rebellion". Many newer publications now refer to it as "The North-West Resistance". And many non-aboriginal Canadians are reviewing their assumptions about Riel from a modern-day vantage point.

"I take a little more time each time I'm here, and I always find something new," says John Hettema, a Regina man who was touring the museum with his wife and their friend from France. "Louis Riel must have been reasonably well-educated to have written the way he did -- that always impresses me."

Hettema's French friend, 55-year-old Jeanette Brissieux from Lorient, Brittany, adds: "It's very interesting to see how difficult it has been to build Canada."

Nearby is a tale that made headlines around the world in 1932.

The Mad Trapper
Even wearing his snowshoes backwards didn't thwart the RCMP who, for the first time, used an aircraft to help track their suspect.

"Mad Trapper" Albert Johnson was thought to be illegally trapping on Indian land.

An RCMP constable was dispatched to his remote location in the Northwest Territories to investigate and, before words were exchanged, Johnson fired on the officer through the door of his makeshift shack. The injured officer managed to get away and, after a second patrol engaged Johnson in a lengthy gun battle 10 days later, he fled into the wilderness. One of the most famous manhunts in history was underway.

"This thing was the media event of its time," says Malcolm Wake, former director of the museum. "We had this big case going on in the Great Canadian North. We had the Mounties and we had the Mad Trapper. This story was being told around the world. In its day, it would have been the equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial."

The manhunt lasted a month and a half before Johnson, who had been wearing his snowshoes backwards to confuse his pursuers, was shot and killed in a gun battle with police. To this day, no one is sure of his identity or how he came to be in possession of $2,400 -- a princely sum in those days. But from that point on it was clear to the world: The RCMP always get their man.

The museum even covers the RCMP's role in Hollywood films of the 30s, 40s and 50s. One of many movie posters included in the memorabilia is one promoting Cecil B. DeMille's 1954 production of "Saskatchewan", starring Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters. The poster boasts, somewhat humorously to anyone familiar with Canadian geography, the movie was "actually filmed in the Canadian Rockies!"

During the 1930's, so many movies were being made about the RCMP that officers were sent to Hollywood to act as technical advisors.

"We also collect the funnier stuff, too," says MacKay. "We try to collect any artifact pertinent to the Mounted Police. My motto is "collect today for tomorrow'."

While the RCMP museum is the highlight for visitors, there's much more to see at "Depot" Division.

The force trains an average of 500 cadets here each year. Training lasts six months and includes extensive classroom study in subjects such as law, firearms and cross-cultural understanding.

Visitors participating in the 45-minute tour of the training facility are sure to encounter cadets marching in formation or jogging at brisk pace down one of the base roads. Some 46,000 RCMP officers have been trained here since 1885.

They'll also see (from the outside, only) the forensic lab, established in 1937 but replaced in 1995 with a state-of-the-art facility. Here, the force employs scientists working in a dozen fields ranging from counterfeit detection, chemistry and firearms, to blood stain analysis and toxicology.

Originally constructed to serve as a mess hall, the chapel was converted to its present role in 1895 after it was nearly destroyed by fire.

One of the most photogenic stops on the tour is the RCMP Chapel. Built in 1883, it's Regina's oldest structure and a quaint symbol of the rectitude all officers are expected to carry with them into the field.

Tip: If you plan to be in Regina during July or August, set aside Tuesday evening for a once-per-week event that's ranked as one of the top 100 tourist attractions in North America: the Sunset Retreat Ceremony.

Based on British military tradition dating back to the 19th century, the 45-minute ceremony features a troop drill display, cadet choir, and the lowering of the flag in conjunction with the playing of the retreat.

There is no charge to attend.

The museum charges no admission, but donations are gratefully accepted. Guided tours of the training academy occur only during week days.

During the summer (June 1 to September 15) the museum is open from 8 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. In the winter months, its hours are 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. For further information, contact the RCMP Centennial Museum at 306-780-5838, or check out the website.



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