The North-West Mounted Police: 1873-1885 by Jack F. Dunn

Insp. Gibson Glavin
August 09, 2018
By Insp. Gibson Glavin
The North-West Mounted Police: 1873-1885
By Jack F. Dunn; 2017, 812 pages
ISBN: 9780969859611

Professionalism, valour and dedication, juxtaposed with Mountie misconduct and political interference from Ottawa — sounds like the environment in which the RCMP exists today.  Should we be surprised that these descriptions also apply to the earliest days of the Mounties? Jack F. Dunn’s recently released account of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) may be the most comprehensive work on the subject to date.

In The North-West Mounted Police: 1873-1885, Dunn combines scholarship and real-life drama to produce an impressive history of the creation of the NWMP and how it integrated itself into the Indigenous and Métis cultures already present on the prairies.

Dunn renders incisive accounts of the 1873/1874 “march west,” negotiations for Treaties 1 through 7, as well as the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. We are also presented, in extraordinary detail (accompanied with rare photos), an account of the NWMP’s mode of operation, equipment and recruitment at the time.

One can clearly see that the author holds in high esteem the accomplishments of the Mounties between 1873 and 1885, but he is no lackey to the “aura,” deserved or not, of the “men in red who always get their man.” Dunn exposes some gross mismanagement and careless treatment of new recruits by the NWMP. He looks at the high number of desertions and casts a realistic eye upon the mixed achievements of the NWMP’s combat role in the rebellion of 1885.

Also provided is a sympathetic account of the rapid deterioration of the once flourishing Indigenous cultures on the prairies, but wisely Dunn does not succumb to simplistic finger pointing as to the causes of the damage done to their historical traditions.  

Dunn delves deeply into areas not commonly covered in non-fiction about the NWMP, such as the climate, the impacts of flora and fauna upon the NWMP; the costs of raising and sustaining the NWMP; and the health of NWMP members. While these areas might not appear to make for a riveting read, Dunn makes them just that. He does so by filling his pages with actual letters from members of the NWMP.  This approach not only places authenticity at the book’s forefront but also creates a vivid picture of this hard life for the reader.

Perhaps the only topic where the author’s approach is questionable is in his chapter on Indigenous women. While the author should be lauded for including a serious discussion of how Indigenous women were treated by the NWMP, he might have done so with more sensitivity in some aspects of this chapter.

The book overall is a triumph and entertains throughout its 812 pages (no easy accomplishment). Debate may continue on what the balance sheet of positives and negatives were for the NWMP, but there can be no denying they were indeed bigger than life in a way that still resonates.   

- Insp. Gibson Glavin, RCMP, retired

(Glavin’s great uncle, Const. George Hamilton Johnston, regimental number 345, was in the NWMP from 1879 to 1882 and was accidentally shot and killed while on duty at Fort Walsh.)

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