The force immortalized by American movies as "Dudley Do-rights" who "always get their man" gave themselves a public relations party this summer.
Canada's press was glad to go along for the ride. The RCMP, known around the globe as benign "Mounties," commemorated early beginnings this summer, and identified the establishment of friendly relations with Native people as one of their guiding principles. Wide coverage of the RCMP's re-enactment of the inaugural "Great March West" reinforced the image of the genteel Mountie made famous by Hollywood. According to the myth, Mounties came from the east to bring law and order to western plains overrun by American traders who abused Natives. But in reality, as early as 1884 and as recently as 1995, the Mounted Police force was employed by its political masters, not to protect Aboriginal rights, but to suppress them.
According to RCMP historical accounts, which accompanied this summer's celebrations, a good rapport was established on the much-heralded Mountie "Great March West" in 1874, when "officers in full dress uniform sat in powwow with a band of Sioux Indians. Mutual assurances of good will were exchanged and the peace pipe was passed. Similarly, historian Don Smith writes, "The North West Mounted Police rescued the Blackfoot. Sent west to end the incidents of violence (such as the massacre in 1873 of 30 Indians in the Cypress Hills by whites from Montana) the force quickly accomplished its goal."
Influential Cree and Blackfoot chiefs signed treaties, largely because they were grateful to officers who helped negotiate them.
However, the colossal cultural gap which characterized 19th century treaty negotiations resonates today as former Indian Affairs minister Jane Stewart was pressured to re-open treaty talks in Alberta because of unfulfilled promises and unresolved land and resource issues.
Disputes over land jurisdiction broke the fragile faith that Mounties had inspired. Officers facilitated the signing of treaties that were never honored, that were defined by concepts of private property foreign to Native language and cosmology. In effect, Mounties were on the front line of an effort to extinguish Aboriginal title, procure settlement, and secure what Katherine Pettipas referred to as an "investment frontier." The RCMP claim their intention was "to protect the rights of Aboriginal people." Pettipas assigned a less altruistic motive in her book, Severing the Ties That Bind: Government Repression of Indians Religious Ceremonies on the Plains. She wrote, "NWMP were employed to assert Canada's hegemony in the Western interior."
Within a few years of signing a treaty, Natives watched with resentment as newcomers encroached and the federal government sought assimilation of Native land and culture into the new dominion. Mounted police were told to enforce laws laid down by the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) that outlawed Native religious ceremonies and contained Natives on reserves through a system of pass laws. Until 1951, it was against the law for a Native person to hire a lawyer to address the issue of land theft. Chiefs were baffled, then indignant. Hostilities simmered when Sun Dances were shut down by Mounties who sometimes jailed the participants.
Some Mounties did not care for the assimilation strategy and flouted the restrictive policies. Colonel McLeod rebuffed officers for arresting Sun Dancers. Although he considered the piercing ceremony "barbaric," he insisted "what officers had done was akin to making an arrest in Church."
Tolerance was not always extended though, especially to chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear, who refused to sign treaties and who organized Sundances. In 1884, their resistance was considered a political threat and their Sundance grounds were subjected to 24 Mounted Police patrols.
In his book, A Narrow Vision, Brian Titley explains the DIA strategy was "to restrict [Sun] dances and to use the services of the Mounted Police to that end." n 1921, "They forcibly intervened, sending the participants back to their respective homes, with agents and police working closely together . . . several Indians found themselves languishing in jail."
Although the RCMP might claim an era of "friendly relations" has returned, there was a confounding familiarity in the convergence of Sun Dance ceremonies, a Native land dispute, and RCMP military intervention in 1995, at Gustafsen Lake, British Columbia. Fourteen Shuswap traditionalists mingled their Sun Dance with an assertion of sovereignty and were met by 400 RCMP officers and military troops in armored personnel carriers who deployed land explosives and fired 70,000 rounds of ammunition.
After reviewing trial transcripts, reporters who had recycled 1995 RCMP press releases recanted on earlier claims that the Sun Dancers were militants.
A September 26, 1997, Vancouver Province column featured an apology and revealed, "The fact is the camp members weren't the terrorists RCMP made them out to be. Nor did they invite the shoot-outs the police press releases claimed. . . . The RCMP took reporters for a ride."