Notes on 55th Text for Reading Field: Morrison

Canadian History, Week 9

“NWMP at end of CPR tracks, Golden, B.C., 1886.” Source: Library and Archives Canada / e008128858.

William R. Morrison. Showing the Flag: The Mounted Police and Canadian Sovereignty in the North, 1894-1925. University of British Columbia Press, 1985.

William R. Morrison supplies a well-written, scholarly account of the formal introduction and function of the North-West Mounted Police in Canada’s North that is entertaining for the insight offered into the personalities and informal social interactions of individuals. It is not possible to say Morrison offers a ‘balanced’ view because I have not read enough NWMP historiography to make that determination, but his account reads as thoughtful. If he is sympathetic to individual officers (F.J. Fitzgerald for example), he appears wary of straying towards myth.

J.D. Moodie, photograph, “C.G.S. ARCTIC preparing to sail for Hudson Bay with a party of North-West Mounted Police aboard,” dated September 1904, Quebec. Source: J.D. Moodie / Library and Archives Canada / C-089336.

Morrison departs from previous portrayals of the NWMP as agents of the National Policy in support a historiographical model of progress. He instead seeks to show how metropolitanism was a working theory internalized by past Canadian policy makers. He describes the assertion of Canadian sovereign rights over the Yukon and the Northwest Territories as a process with two facets: symbolic and developmental. Assertions of  symbolic sovereignty consisted “of actions taken to fulfill the formal requirements of sovereignty under international law,” for example when constables were sent to far northern locations such as Ellesmere Island simply to establish a Canadian presence, or, when they were charged with delivering mail. Assertion of developmental sovereignty occurred “when the government act[ed] on a specific policy for a territory under its control.” The Dominion lands survey and the treaty and reserve policies serve as examples.[1]

Morrison supplies an interesting account of the NWMP behaviour during the Yukon Gold Rush. The account is followed by descriptions of police activities in the High and Eastern Arctic and the Mackenzie Delta. Morrison does a reasonable job of including Aboriginal persons in his account. He is less concerned with demonstrating that the NWMP brought change to northern people than with revealing how individual mounties were influenced by their contact with Aboriginal people. The stories of understanding and accommodation on both sides actually outnumber those of misunderstanding and conflict, although examples of paternalistic action and culturally arrogant statements are provided. These illustrate ways in which constables denigrated the poor and indigent by supposing their condition to be the consequence of ‘race.’ Misunderstanding is also visible in the way that mounties distinguished between ‘Indians’ and Inuit — asserting that the latter group was morally superior to the other, again attributing the difference to ‘race’ rather than to socio-economic circumstance and political history. To a limited extent, Morrison displays a similar bias: he attributes Inuit ‘good manners’ to a culture formed in adaptation to harsh conditions, and avows the ‘Indians’ had not faced the same degree of difficulty and thus did not develop the same generosity or industriousness to see these values embedded in their culture. The lack of excessively violent confrontation between mounties and native Northerners seems in part due to good sense and level headedness on both sides but due as well to the latitude that individual constables were accorded in devising on-the-spot responses to the situations they were confronted with – there were few policy directives to guide them and distance from any superior regulatory power was great.

Morrison does not fall into the trap of mythologizing his subject, but it is hard not to come away from this text without having been impressed with the boldness that these young – and sometimes naive – men displayed in acclimatizing and acculturating  themselves to Northern life.

Additional Resources:

J.G.A. Creighton, “The Northwest Mounted Police Of Canada,” Scribner’s Magazine 14 no. 4 (October, 1893): 399-41, with illustrations by Frederic Remington, http://bit.ly/7IIgnj.

From The Beaver, listed chronologically by publication:

“How Smith’s Landing Became FitzGerald,” The Beaver 1 no. 4 (January 1921):4, http://bit.ly/4JTQ3W.

“Fur Traders, Sailors, Scientists and Police,” The Beaver 13 no. 2 (September 1933): 34-35, with photographs, http://bit.ly/85vCwM.

Photograph, “The Hudson’s Bay Company and R.C.M.P. posts at Port Burwell in northern Labrador,” The Beaver 14 no. 3 (December 1934): 4, http://bit.ly/6WXzIr.

Photograph, “Corporal Kerr, R.C.M.P., with HBC Apprentice Dixon, at Chesterfield,” The Beaver 18 no. 2 (September 1938):61, http://bit.ly/4s2KKt.

R.C. Fetherstonhaugh, “March of the Mounties,” The Beaver 20 no. 1 (June 1940): 20-25, http://bit.ly/8inw2k.

Movie stills and candid photographs, “Scenes from ‘North West Mounted Police’,” The Beaver 20 no. 2 (September 1940): 56, http://bit.ly/4TsuNJ.

Photograph, “Const. Hastie, R.C.M.P., with Mrs. O.M. Demment at Cape Dorset,” The Beaver 22 no. 4 (March 1943): 51, http://bit.ly/6TTvAv.

Sgt W.H. Nevin, “Policing the Far North,” The Beaver 25 no. 2 (September 1945): 6-10, with photographs, http://bit.ly/7UGTrw.

Walter Hildebrandt, review of Showing the Flag: The Mounted Police and Canadian Sovereignty in the North, 1894 to 1925, by William R. Morrison, Manitoba History 15 (1988), http://bit.ly/7bKb5b.

Judith Roberts-Moore, review of Showing the Flag: The Mounted Police and Canadian Sovereignty in the North, 1894 to 1925, by William R. Morrison, Archivaria 25 (1987) 138-140, http://bit.ly/8fsJKF.

“The Force in the North,” Virtual Museum of Canada website, http://bit.ly/8VgTV7.

“‘Without Fear, Favour or Affection’: The Men of the North West Mounted Police,” Library and Archives Canada website, http://bit.ly/65lrrX.


[1] William R. Morrison, Showing the Flag: The Mounted Police and Canadian Sovereignty in the North, 1894-1925 (University of British Columbia Press, 1985), 1-2.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 9 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Notes on 55th Text for Reading Field: Morrison

  1. Montague Demment says:

    I see the following reference:

    Photograph, “Const. Hastie, R.C.M.P., with Mrs. O.M. Demment at Cape Dorset,” The Beaver 22 no. 4 (March 1943): 51, http://bit.ly/6TTvAv.

    The address is not active. My father was O.M. Demment and my mother lived with him at Cape Dorset where he was the post manager for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Is it possible to get a wring link to the picture. It would be much appreciated.

    Thank you. Montague Demment

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