Content warning: This article contains descriptions of systemic violence against Indigenous Peoples, especially against Red River Métis, and mentions the residential school system. 

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are the nation’s federal police force and the supposed primary guardians of peace and security in Canada. However, many Canadians might not know about the RCMP’s more sinister origins: that they were established out of the pacification, and attempted extermination of the Indigenous people of the Red River Settlement in 1870. 

Canada’s establishment of the RCMP highlights the role policing plays in nation-building and domination through extermination, killing, and the pacification of a certain ‘other.’ The RCMP also challenges the moral authority we have projected onto the police, daring us to hold them accountable.

Where it all started

In a conversation with journalist Arshy Mann, Indigenous rights lawyer Jean Teillet noted the gaps in Canada’s recollection of the transfer of jurisdictional authority from the Red River Métis to the Canadian Confederation in 1870. The French and Catholic Métis who occupied what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba, agreed to enter the confederation upon federal promises of protection for the rights of Francophones and Catholics, and of a million hectares of land. 

In 1870, during the Red River Resistance and the birth of Manitoba, a group of Métis led by Louis Riel denied the confederation physical entry into their land after Canada bought it from the Hudson’s Bay Company without consultation or consent from them. The resistors turned the Confederation’s men away at gunpoint, formed their own provincial government as a foil to the federal government, and seized Fort Garry as a show of resolve. 

According to The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada Regimental Museum and Archive, the federal government sent expeditionary forces to quell the resistance, and law and order were “rapidly restored.” When Colonel Garnet S. Wolseley and his forces came to put down the rebellion for good, Riel and his associates fled over the US border. Prior to the 1960s and Canadians’ increased skepticism about popular Canadian history, the story seemed to wrap up neatly in a classic case of ‘good guy beats bad guy and bad guy flees,’ because that’s what ‘bad guys’ do.

Canada’s collective memory conveniently forgot that two thirds of the 1,200 men sent to tame the Red River Resistance were members of a Protestant supremacist secret society called The Grand Orange Lodge of British America — of which then prime minister John A. MacDonald was a member. 

The Orange Lodge was a prominent and powerful political force in the country and its goal was to transform Canada into an English-speaking Protestant refuge within the vast heathen wilderness of British North America. This meant that the culture of Canada’s other presences — Indigenous Nations, the French, and the Catholics, all of which the Red River Métis identified with — had to be expunged. 

And so, Canada’s expeditionary forces unleashed destruction. They murdered, raped, pillaged and destroyed so much so that the New York Times called their two years of destruction a “reign of terror.” Once the expeditionary forces concluded their engagement — after thousands of people fled the prairies, making room for incoming white settlers — MacDonald transformed this rag-tag bundle of ‘Canadian heroes’ into the country’s first police force: the North West Mounted Police, which operated as a paramilitary, or illegitimate national army, and later became the RCMP. 

Canada’s police today

When systems of injustice do not die, they transmute. This is how I believe the RCMP still manages to function as a militarized unit for the enforcement of settler colonialism and its legacies today. The institution shifts shape and takes on newer skins and faces under which histories and patterns of destruction may be hidden for when Canada has use for them later.

Today, the RCMP training academy is located at the site where Louis Riel was hanged for treason in 1885. As part of their education, children from the nearby Regina Indian Industrial Residential School were made to watch. Strands from the rope that is believed to have been used to hang Louis Riel were displayed at the former RCMP Centennial Museum in Regina, Saskatchewan. The RCMP Heritage Centre museum has since replaced the Centennial Museum and does not display the rope.

I wonder what that rope and those training grounds might have meant to a young cadet who was eager to serve their country. The symbolic display of that hanging rope might have beckoned to a standard that justice must aspire to and adhere to. If they knew what happened there, perhaps those cadets would have taken pride in it. Perhaps they too felt a moral pressure to recreate the same spectacles of the dispossessed.

We have seen patterns of colonial paramilitarism repeat themselves through Canada’s police force. During the great starvation of the late 1870s as a result of the overhunting of buffaloes by white settlers, the police administered the pass system that controlled the movement of Indigenous persons through reserves, and kept them dependent on government food rations. The mounties forcibly took children from their families and brought them to residential schools. Several initial figureheads of the police force, men like John Ingram, Francis Cornish, and Colonel S. P. Jarvis, were openly active or complicit in the beating, killing, rape, and terrorization of Indigenous Peoples.

As of November 2022, the RCMP had spent more than $25 million on policing Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia. We remember the arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in March 2020, where he was jump-tackled, punched in the head, and put in a chokehold without warning — over an expired license plate. 

We have witnessed the RCMP deploy military-style units against unarmed protestors and carry out violent assaults and arrests against Indigenous women. That 30 per cent of Canada’s prisoners are Indigenous people signals deep and consistent errors in policing. 

To understand Canada’s police system, we must first reckon with its history. Unfortunately, there’s not much there that stirs hope for the people they’ve been charged to protect.

Divine Angubua is a third-year student at UTM studying history, political science, and creative writing. He is the editor-in-chief of With Caffeine and Careful Thought and a staff writer at The Medium. He is the associate comment editor of The Varsity.

Editor’s note (March 22): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that strands of rope thought to have been part of the rope used to hang Louis Riel are on display at the RCMP Heritage Centre museum. In fact, its predecessor, the RCMP Centennial Museum, which closed in 2006, displayed these strands of rope in the past. The RCMP Heritage Centre museum, however, does not display the rope and has not displayed it since the museum opened in 2007.