NWMP Guardians of Public Health
by permission of Marguerite E. Robinson
As we go back 100 years in history we find the North West Territories was a vast empty land with no hospitals, no nurses and very few doctors. Some of the earliest doctors arrived about 1880 - 1881 but few before that time. The nearest hospital was at Medicine Hat, Alta., and until 1898 it was the only one with a medical superintendent. By 1900 there was a total of 14 hospital beds to serve all the area that is now Saskatchewan.
In the meantime as settlers pushed West before the railroad and men from crowded European countries and China were recruited to build the railroad, disease entered the land. With no facilities for treatment and a native population without immunity against the plagues, entire communities were often wiped out by smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria and measles.
* * *
In 1873 the area now known as Saskatchewan and Alberta was under the control of regulations of the province of Manitoba formed in 1870. However, the importance of public health regulations was not recognized and it was the practice to appoint an executive council to take care of emergency epidemics and to disband the council when the trouble had been checked.
This council seldom had a medical man on it. Thus death and destruction were well advanced before recognition of the problem was given attention. About the only public health regulation in effect gave the lieutenant-governor power to proclaim an area isolated.
It then became the responsibility of the NWMP to enforce isolation by posting a man on the trail to keep people from an infected area visiting outside. Supplies were carried to the infected homes by the men of the force. Burial of the dead, disinfection of the premises, often by burning the clothing and shack of a victim, were all part of the duties of the young constables.
In outlying areas without communication the constable, with a minimum of knowledge, often diagnosed, treated
and cared for the patient. At Athabaska Landing, Constable Ball of the NWMP cared for 11 cases of smallpox. He quarantined, disinfected and vaccinated without medical aid.
Dr. James Patterson reported "I have much pleasure in certifying to the continued efficiency and value of the NWMP in maintaining quarantine and acting as supply agents for those quarantined."
Dr. Maurice M. Seymour, first provincial public health officer, praised the force when he spoke of their work, "The NWMP were employed to meet and advise settlers that all matters of law for order and general well being of the residents must be respected. To this splendidly-equipped and judicial force much credit is due for the administration of early health measures."
To fulfill these duties required much tact by the members of the force. Many of the new settlers were unable to speak English and had come from countries where they feared the police. The government had instructions in prevention and treatment of contagious diseases printed in several languages to distribute in non-English speaking districts. However, the red-coated young policeman who rode up to the house on his horse had to convince the newcomers that the police were friendly as well as being able to assist them in understanding the new world they had entered.
In many areas the NWMP were called to enforce isolation of groups where the families continued to hold large funerals and with active sick cases present they spread diphtheria and smallpox rapidly. In Regina Dr. David Low asked for the help of the NWMP when a large epidemic of scarlet fever broke out in the eastern part of the town. With the police controlling quarantine the disease was successfully brought under control.
Another one of the duties of NWMP was taking the census of the scattered population. In 1896 the population of Assiniboia, Alberta and Saskatchewan was 73,505, yet all this vast area was without hospital facilities until the McLeod Hospital was incorporated in December, 1887 and the Calgary General Hospital in 1890.
One of the worst experiences of Dr. Seymour and his party, including Dr. H.L. Reid and two mounted policemen, was reported in the doctor's 1907 annual report.
Dr. Seymour was in Winnipeg in January of 1907 when he received word of an outbreak of smallpox north of Prince Albert. Owing to the severe cold weather and heavy snow it took three days by train to reach Prince Albert.
From there the party started for the lumber camps where the main cases were, but 16 miles from town three cases of smallpox were found in a stopping place where freighters and travellers stayed overnight. Two of these patients were a woman and a girl who were serving the visitors. The place was quarantined and placarded.
Arriving at Camp No. 2 about 75 miles north of Prince Albert the doctors found 13 cases of smallpox among 113 men. As it was a Sunday all the men were in the bunkhouse, some ill in various stages of the fever. They were vaccinated but it was a difficult job, for the men were in a cross, sulky mood. No doubt the presence of the uniformed men helped to make them co-operate. Arrangements were made to provide isolation for those who were ill. The party then continued on to two other camps with
about 300 men and these were vaccinated and quarantined.
Two mounted policemen were stationed on the main road from Prince Albert to prevent communication between the camps. Supplies were brought to the post where the police were stationed in a tent and drivers from the camps took the goods on into the quarantined areas. In this way direct communication with the outside was prevented but the policemen and horses on this detail must have suffered from the intense cold.
Dr. Seymour concluded his report by saying "I might say that I have been in actual practice in the West since 1881, during which period I have had some pretty hard trips, but never any just quite as bad as this one, with temperatures continuously in the neighborhood of 50 below zero, having to drive, during the four days, from 50 to 75 miles per day, and with such food as one gets at stopping places in the north made up altogether such a trip as I hope never to make again."
It took between three and four months to get the outbreak under control.
With a Bureau of Public Health formed in 1911 and an efficient Department of Public Health organized in 1923 the RCMP have been relieved of the necessity of caring for epidemics.
However, after 100 years the men of the force still serve the public health. They often render first aid at an accident, rescue near drowning cases, drag lakes for bodies of victims, aid in searching for lost children in wooded areas and on their patrols watch for health hazards as well as criminals.
They still guard the well being of the communities where they are posted. With faster communication and transportation available the RCMP are able to assist the Department of Publich Health to maintain a high standard of health.
During the years the work of the force has changed as well as the name but it has kept pace with modern methods. Patrols are conducted by car, airplane or boat instead of dog team or horseback.
The public salutes a force of men who has served them well for 100 years.
Footnote: This article appeared in the Western Producer on July 5, 1973 - Centennial year of the R.C.M.P. In the April 24, 1975 issue of the same newspaper there appeared Mrs. Robinson's picture and news of her death. Her letter of permission was dated March 28. I (Mrs. Lois Nichols) am taking the liberty of quoting from that letter:
"We need all the history we can find for our textbooks are sadly lacking. I have done quite a lot of research in various forms of history, and this information has been mostly from the 1886 Territorial Annual Reports, These included early Public Health reports, which were at that time under the Attorney-General's Department at Ottawa. From the many reports it was plain that Ottawa never had any idea what concerns the prairie provinces. There is a great gap from east of Toronto to Vancouver."