The constables and junior officers of the Mounted Police serving at Herschel Island were agents of the national state. While at Herschel Island they attempted to express the interests of Canada meaningfully in the local conditions they experienced at the extreme northwestern corner of the country. These interests included the establishment of a national presence through the enforcement of Canadian law, the protection of the country’s commercial interests, and the extension of state services to the region. At the same time, however, they had to intervene in the complex cultural contact involving the North Slope Inuvialuit, now divided by a national boundary, and southern whalemen, fur traders and gold miners looking for wealth, Christian missionaries seeking to save souls and a government struggling to transform hunters into citizens.
For the inexperienced young men posted to Herschel Island as Mounties between 1903 and 1964 these challenges were compounded by the demanding climate and geography of the region and their isolation from the familiar world of farms and cities in which they grew up. For at least some of them, it was one of the most interesting and exciting experiences of their lives.
Setting the Boundary
Although mapped and named in 1826, newcomer interest in Herschel Island only began much later in the century. American whalemen arrived from the west to chase bowhead whales in the late 1880s. In 1892, Bishop Reeve of Mackenzie Diocese asked Isaac Stringer, then newly arrived in the western Arctic, to visit both whalemen and aboriginal people at Herschel Island in 1893. Despite their disparate purposes both missionaries and whalemen had an interest in the arrival of a state authority. Bishop Bompas of Selkirk (Yukon) Diocese, then living in Dawson City, wrote frequently to Ottawa requesting a police presence to control contact between the two cultures. By the same token the whaling fleet, often over-wintering at Herschel Island, appreciated a level-headed neutral third party to mediate disputes between the ships’ captains and their often restive crews. Traders in the Mackenzie delta also added their complaints when whalemen, bringing in much cheaper trade goods directly from San Francisco and avoiding customs duties, undercut the fur market in the region.
There was, however, little appetite in the 1890s for the dispatch of a police force to the western Arctic. The severe economic depression of the time meant government coffers were low and the commitment of a significant Yukon detachment to police the Klondike gold rush pushed the capacity of the Mounted Police to its limits. The petitions were ignored. However the unsatisfactory, for Canadians, outcome of the Alaska Boundary settlement in late 1903 caused a nationalist furor and the Dominion government responded quickly. Before the final boundary agreement was even completed a small and poorly equipped Mounted Police detachment was sent north. They arrived at Herschel Island in late summer and camped there into the fall. The following year a permanent detachment was established with connections to the Yukon detachment at Dawson. Early police work focused on monitoring the whaling and becoming familiar with the Inuvialuit in the region.
In 1910 Herschel Island was made the subdistrict headquarters for the Mounted Police in the western Arctic. As such it became the base for a regular set of extensive patrols along the North Slope to the Mackenzie delta and south to the Porcupine River and Old Crow. One of the earliest of these long dog trips was undertaken by Inspector G.L. Jennings in 1910. His trip diary records the difficulties of travel, regional place names and the presence of aboriginal people. Curiously when his report was published in the Mounted Police report to Parliament for 1911, much of the geographic description was retained, but most of the references to people he met disappeared. The land was emptied of people and its potential as territory highlighted. This however was only true for people far away. For the Mounted Police on patrol the knowledge and land skills of aboriginal people were crucial for their survival. In 1909, the Herschel Island police hired their first special constable. It was the co-operation of the Inuvialuit, both those working as specials and the general support the Mounted Police obtained from the local population, that made effective police work possible on the North Slope.