December 24, 1877: the law arrives in St. Albert.
It was on this day that Alfred Arcand stepped into Bishop Grandin’s church, historian Bertha Kennedy writes in the Gazette. A member of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) based out of what is now Fort Saskatchewan, Officer Arcand was in the area to negotiate a treaty with the Blackfoot tribe, and stopped in at the church for a social call.
One imagines he made quite the impression as he carefully stepped between the women and children squatting on the floor in prayer, decked out as he was in boots, spurs and red serge. St. Albert impressed him, too, as he would later move here when he retired in 1880.
Eight years later, his fellow officers would construct a permanent police station in St. Albert.
That station is in a sense still around today, giving us a physical link to a pivotal moment in Canada’s hi the arrival of the NWMP in the west.
The not-so-wild west
St. Albert was not a lawless place 150 years ago. The First Nations people had rules and laws of their own for centuries, and Father Albert Lacombe had convinced residents to appoint a magistrate by March 1864. Arcand’s visit is, however, the earliest report of a modern police officer visiting this community.
The federal government created the NWMP in 1873 after whisky traders from Montana started making trouble in western Canada. The cops were meant to assert Canadian sovereignty in the region and carry out government duties, said Rod Macleod, retired history professor at the University of Alberta and author of several books on the RCMP.
“They were the government.”
The NWMP wore their famous red serge uniforms from the beginning, said Kristine Nygren, curator of the Fort Saskatchewan Museum. The red serge was cheap, as Queen Victoria was outfitting all her troops in it, and coincidentally gave police a symbolic advantage when speaking with First Nations people, many of who ascribed symbolic importance to the colour red. They wore mostly pillbox hats at first, then switched to pith helmets before settling on the Stetsons the RCMP use to this day.
Some 275 NWMP officers left Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, to confront whisky traders at Fort Macleod. Twenty of them, including future legendary cop and soldier Sam Steele, split off to Fort Edmonton. As they took the animals and wagons with them, they were dubbed the “barnyard division,” Nygren said.
The cops arrived at Fort Edmonton in late 1874, only to ditch the place and set up shop in what is now Fort Saskatchewan the next year. Nygren said historians think this happened because top cop Insp. William Jarvis didn’t get along with Richard Hardisty, head of the Hudson’s Bay at Fort Edmonton, and balked when the latter asked the former to build their base at Edmonton.
The NWMP then started doing patrols in the area, armed with six-shooters, Winchesters and horses, Macleod and Nygren said. Amongst other odd jobs, they were responsible for firefighting, treaty payments, mail delivery, timber licenses, mental health care (they had to ship off any settler who went mad from isolation) and food distribution.
It was that last task that prompted NWMP Capt. A.W. Griesbach to set up a detachment in St. Albert, reports Black Robe’s Vision. Crop failure meant that the cops had to distribute rations to some 160 St. Albert families, and he figured a local base would help.
St. Albert’s first police station was built in 1888 near where Perron Street and the parking lot east of St. Albert Place are today. The log structure was severely cramped, with the jail cell located in the office/dining room (the prisoners in which, one officer complained, made life unpleasant for the wives of constables).
The two officers stationed there distributed a staggering 20,916 pounds of flour and 5,334 pounds of bacon to residents that first year, Black Robe’s Vision reports. Later, they would patrol out as far as RiviÈre Qui Barre and Stony Plain twice a week on horseback.
True crime stories
The NWMP didn’t have much crime to fight in those early days, Macleod said.
“It was so quiet and boring that Steele can’t wait to get out of it,” he noted, and he put in for a transfer south as soon as he could.
There were no detectives or forensics back then, so cops relied on what today is called community policing to solve crimes, Macleod said.
“You would know everybody in the community without exception,” he said, and would use that knowledge to resolve conflicts.
The first big crime in the St. Albert region was the case of a Cree man named Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin, or Swift Runner, in 1879.
Swift Runner was a respected guide for the NWMP prior to becoming mentally ill, at which point he became violent towards his wife and others, Nygren said. His tribe cast him out, and he went off with his mother, wife, brother, and five kids to tend his trap line over the winter.
“Over the course of the winter, he killed and ate them all,” Nygren said.
Swift Runner went to Father Hippolyte Leduc in St. Albert and said that his family had starved to death. Noting that the man seemed well-fed, Leduc took him before the NWMP, who investigated Swift Runner’s camp and found human skulls and bones everywhere. Swift Runner confessed, and became the first person to be legally hanged in Alberta.
“The Cree people were a little upset,” Nygren said, but not because he was executed. Locals believed Swift Runner had been possessed by the cannibalistic windigo spirit, and wanted him burned to exorcise the ghost.
One of the most spectacular crimes in early St. Albert was the botched robbery of the Banque d’Hochelaga on April 28, 1917.
The Edmonton Bulletin and Black Robe’s Vision report that John Paul Ryan and George McIntyre had tried to blast open the bank’s safe using liquid explosives sometime between midnight and 5 a.m. on April 28. The explosion destroyed the safe’s door but did not breach the cash compartment.
Ryan and McIntyre fled in a stolen McLaughlin car, but were soon arrested in an Edmonton apartment complex, where the Alberta Provincial Police found hacksaws, skeleton keys, loaded guns, bottles of liquid explosive, and a handkerchief similar to one found at the bank. Ryan and McIntyre pleaded guilty and got jail time, but insisted that the true mastermind of the crime, one “Shorty” Adams, was still at large.
Standing guard across time
The NWMP closed their St. Albert detachment in 1910, Black Robe’s Vision reports. St. Albert had hired a town constable by 1904, and the force had set up a new headquarters in Edmonton, making the St. Albert office unnecessary.
The building was rented to the town for $1 a year, records of the St. Albert Historical Society report. After being used as meeting room for many years, the town turned it over to the province in 1930.
In 1939, resident Charles Belcourt bought the place, dismantled it, and rebuilt it into a one-storey home next to what is now the Red Willow Place (the seniors’ club), the Society reports. Once Belcourt moved on, the house sat there forgotten until it was slated for demolition around 1977.
It was at that point that Society president James Parker recognized the significance of the home, said St. Albert historian Arlene Borgstede.
Parker rallied the Society, the Chamber of Commerce, Lions Club, town staff and the First St. Albert Scouts to restore the building and move it to its current spot by the Sturgeon River, the Gazette’s archives show. After many years as a tourist information centre, it became the headquarters for the BLESS Summer Nature program.
St. Albert ran its own constabulary until 1944, at which point the NWMP (now called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) returned to town, Kennedy reports.
The RCMP might not work out of that cabin as their NWMP predecessors did, but they still carry many of the same traditions, such as their uniforms and commitment to equality before the law.
That even-handed treatment won them respect from settlers and the First Nations and helped bring communities together, Nygren said.
“The North West Mounted Police gave them that feeling of unity, that they were all equals.”
Today, the red serge continues to inspire respect across Canada as a symbol of law and order.
“I still think that they’re one of the best police forces around,” MacLeod says, “and I think their history has a lot to do with that.”
Links to the past
In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th, the Gazette will examine one element of St. Albert that’s 150 years old (give or take a few decades) on the last Wednesday of each month from now until July 2017.
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