Historian Bill Waiser was flipping through files at the RCMP’s archives in Regina one day when he extracted a manila envelope from a filing cabinet, opened the flap and discovered a piece of a human skull.
The remains were from Almighty Voice, a Cree hero whose life and eventual death at the hands of the Northwest Mounted Police in 1897 have inspired stories, a movie and a forthcoming book by Mr. Waiser.
The piece of Almighty Voice’s body had ended up in the archives because an unknown officer had taken it from the battlefield as a war trophy. It had been on public display for decades, but was moved to the backrooms when the RCMP upgraded its facilities in 2007. Now the RCMP – after prompting in recent weeks by Mr. Waiser and the descendants of Almighty Voice – are talking to the One Arrow First Nation about giving the remains back.
The RCMP Heritage Centre on the grounds of Depot Division in Regina is now set for its biggest upgrade yet, as the federal government prepares to elevate the institution to the status of a national museum. The new designation will mean an influx of new funding and the promise of thousands of new visitors a year.
The increased stature will also bring a renewed focus on reconciliation. The story of Almighty Voice and what happened to his body after he died shows both how the RCMP’s relationships with Indigenous communities have changed over the years, and also how the RCMP continue to grapple with how to tell their own story – warts and all – to the Canadian public. It reflects a larger conversation going on in museums and galleries across the country and around the world about reconciling the narratives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and the repatriation of Indigenous cultural artifacts, some of which were given freely and some of which were taken by force.
“I just don’t see how you can, in Saskatchewan, build a museum about the RCMP, unless you deal with the truth-telling about the history of the police and First Nations,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, law professor and director of the Indian Residential School Centre for History and Dialogue at the University of British Columbia.
“While some things may be seen to be in the past, the reconciliation piece has not been done,” she said.
Birth of the Force
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police traces its lineage back to 1873, when prime minister John A. Macdonald won Parliament’s approval to create a police force that would patrol the fledgling province of Manitoba and the sprawling North-West Territories. Early Mounties cracked down on whiskey trading and played a key part in policing the gold rush.
They also worked with local First Nations and Métis guides and scouts who knew the land much better than the incoming policemen.
Marty Klyne, a Regina businessman and former director of the RCMP Heritage Centre who was named to the Senate in 2018, said some stories of conflicts between Indigenous communities and the mounted police in the early days have been blown out of proportion over the years.
“Elders today will tell the story of the red coat representing trust and they hand that down to other leaders,” said Mr. Klyne, who is a Cree Métis. “Speaking to some of the tribal chiefs, they still look at it through that view.”
While those early officers worked at times with members of Indigenous communities, they also enforced laws that were colonial, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. She pointed, for example, to the fact that mounted policemen took children from their homes and delivered them to residential schools, where they were subject to abuse and an attempted erasure of their culture.
“The [police] may not have written the law,” she said, ”but they gleefully enforced it."
Some residential schools were still in operation up until the 1990s. The RCMP and the federal government didn’t officially apologize for the practice until 2004 and 2008, respectively. Then the government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which collected the stories of residential-school survivors and ultimately delivered a historic accounting of the damage the practice had delivered upon tens of thousands of vulnerable children.
Meanwhile, the RCMP were working on recognizing their own history.
For years, the police force had artifacts from its own storied past on display on the grounds of Depot, the academy in Regina through which all new recruits must pass. But community leaders and officers thought it deserved a dedicated space. A group of former Mounties called the Friends of the Mounted Police Museum formed in 1988. Depot’s then-commanding officer, Andre Gauthier, and the mayor of Regina, Doug Archer, began talking about an institution dedicated to the RCMP’s history in the early 1990s.
In 2007, the RCMP Heritage Centre finally opened. The museum tells the story of the RCMP through permanent exhibits and interactive displays, such as a police-cruiser driving simulator.
“We are telling a national story”
Dan Toppings, a 25-year veteran of the force and the Heritage Centre’s executive director, said the centre has long sought support from the federal government. But, he said, it wasn’t until last year’s election campaign that it finally got traction. During the campaign, both the Liberals and Conservatives promised to make the Regina centre a national museum – a designation that would come with an influx of new federal money.
“I think they finally realized that even though we aren’t situated in Ottawa, we are telling a national story,” Mr. Toppings said.
The Heritage Centre is its own non-profit organization, with a board of directors and a current staff of eight full-time employees. The centre gets some of its funding from municipal and provincial governments, admission fees and selling concessions to cadets. But the bulk of its funding comes from the RCMP, who pay a rental fee to the centre for keeping their collections on site. And those artifacts – as well as the curators who look after them – are on the police force’s payroll.
Victor Rabinovitch, who ran the national war and history museums in Ottawa from 2000 to 2011, said a museum can be hampered in what stories it can tell if it isn’t truly independent.
“The owner of the collection has considerable control over how the collection is used, how it's shown, whether it's shown,” Mr. Rabinovitch said.
The government, the RCMP and the Heritage Centre say it’s still too early in negotiations to say what will happen when the facility becomes a national museum. It could be designated an independent Crown corporation, like the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. Or it could be folded under the umbrella of the Museum of History, which is in Gatineau, Que. And it’s still to be decided what control the centre will have over the collection, and whether the story of the RCMP will continue to be told by the police force itself.
Jodi Ann Eskritt, the curator of the RCMP historical collections unit, says the current exhibits do mention the Indigenous people who lived on the Prairies before settlers arrived. The centre does display gifts that Indigenous communities have given RCMP members over the years and has recognized officers who were Métis, Inuit or came from First Nations.
“We certainly try to, as much as possible, open up opportunities for seeing all sides,” Ms. Eskritt said, adding: “[but] obviously, we are first and foremost telling the story of the RCMP."
The story of Almighty Voice changed over time in Canada, from that of an outlaw to one of a folk hero.
How the RCMP told his story – from displaying the “war trophy” to giving his remains back – changed, too. And that may point the way to further reconciliation between the police force and the communities over which it has held power.
Tricia Sutherland, chief of the One Arrow First Nation, says her community is looking forward to having Almighty Voice’s remains back. She said the descendants of Almighty Voice are planning a pipe ceremony and a feast when the last of his body is returned.
She said people on her reserve used to not trust the local RCMP detachment, but they’ve tried in recent years to get to know them and build relationships. Now, she says things are much improved. And a local reconciliation committee that brings together municipal and Indigenous leaders has been a strong force in bringing different people together.
"I was reluctant about the reconciliation buzzword, however I’ve changed my thinking on this,” Ms. Sutherland said.
She said the same could apply to the RCMP national museum, when it’s set up.
“It just can’t be the history we’ve known for the past century, which [didn’t have] any input from the First Nations at all,” she said. “It was the history of the government itself. We would like our history to be told. It’s part of the reconciliation, right?"