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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is the federal and paramilitary police force in Canada. It is a large organization, with more than 19,000 sworn members and about 10,000 unsworn in 2013. Unlike most national police forces, the RCMP has front-line policing responsibilities at the provincial and local level.

Its history goes back to 1873 when the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) were formed in Canada’s Northwest Territories as prime minister John A. Macdonald was keen to bring law and order to the area. The catalyst was a drunken skirmish in Saskatchewan between wolf hunters, whiskey traders, and cargo haulers that became known as the Cypress Hills massacre.

The NWMP was based on the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the first commissioner, George Arthur French, went to Ireland to learn its practices. The new force of 22 officers and 287 men marched west from Manitoba to Alberta with their equipment and animals in July 1874. They were able to contain the whiskey trade when a group led by Superintendent James Morrow Walsh set up a post at Cypress Hills. The force’s headquarters were in this area from 1878 to 1883. The RCMP also built good relations with the First Nations’ peoples, Walsh and Sitting Bull becoming firm friends. The force helped end the North-West Rebellion in 1885 but not without heavy losses.

In the late 1890s, the NWMP kept the peace at the Klondike Gold Rush. It established various rules, enforced the law, collected customs duties, inspected boats, and generally maintained order, although gambling and prostitution were rife. The force’s success at Klondike ensured its continued existence, despite House of Commons discussions to dissolve it.

Its jurisdiction extended steadily, to the Yukon Territory in 1895, Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces in 1905 and Manitoba in 1912. King Edward VII named it the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP) in 1904. During World War I, it conducted border patrols and enemy surveillance and enforced national security regulations. In 1918, some of its members were part of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force in Vladivostok, during the Russian Revolution.

The organization was used to quell strike action in Winnipeg in 1919 and at other industrial confrontations. Its image deteriorated and again it faced dissolution. However, in 1920 it became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after merging with the Dominion Police, a force that was set up in 1868 to protect Ottawa’s parliament buildings.

The new body was to enforce federal laws across Canada. It was also responsible for national security and intelligence, and closely monitored groups such as the Communist Party of Canada as well as Chinese and Ukrainian communities. It continued the RNWMP’s role of breaking up strikes. The RCMP Marine Section was created in 1932, patrolling the country’s Arctic territory. In 1939, the RCMP Security Service was set up as a specialized intelligence unit.

In the postwar period, the RCMP Security Service decided to weed out undesirables from the public sector after Russian defector Igor Gouzenko revealed Soviet espionage activity. The RCMP targeted communism and then homosexuality. It developed a device that became known as the “fruit machine” to measure changes in a man’s pupil dilation when viewing pictures of nude men, which was supposed to determine if a man was gay. It operated the gadget in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite inconclusive results and funding being cut, the RCMP continued gathering information until it had files on more than 9,000 suspected homosexuals.

Women first joined the ranks of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1974, with 32 females comprising Troop 17. The first female to become a corporal was in 1981. The first to serve in a foreign post was in 1987. A woman was made a detachment commander in 1990 and the first female officers were appointed in 1992. The force had its first female Assistant Commissioner in 1998 and its first female (interim) Commissioner in 2006 before a male civilian got the top job in 2007, the first non-officer to do so.

In the late 1970s, the RCMP Security Service was accused of stealing the documents of separatist Parti Quebecois, setting fire to a barn, and other crimes. The “Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP” resulted in intelligence duties being removed to a new separate organization, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, in 1984. Later, in 1993, the RCMP lost its counter-terrorism unit, the Special Emergency Response Team, to the Canadian Armed Forces.

Controversy continues to haunt the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Since 1994, it has provided training and support for the Haitian National Police, an organization that attracts plenty of allegations of human rights abuses. In recent years, a number of officers have been killed and several suspects have died during RCMP operations. The Canadian Government had to pay $10.5 million to Maher Arar when the RCMP provided wrong information, leading to his imprisonment and torture in a Syrian gaol. In 2007, the Canadian Press named the RCMP as Canadian Newsmaker of the Year.