This is the second post in a series edited by Blair Stein interrogating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Canadian national identity is a highly debated subject both within academia and urban cultural spaces. What does it mean to be Canadian? What does it look like? Symbols such as the Canadian flag and butter tarts are easy “Canadian” identifiers and are often used to celebrate commonalities. Similarly, since its formation in May 1873, the RCMP (NWMP) has become an influential symbol of Canadian patriotism: the red uniformed Mountie securely atop the wild-made-domestic animal. But patrolling Canada’s vast frontier environments from coast to coast comes with the apprehension of wanted criminals. The RCMP, in one context a symbol of nationalism and strength, is the adversary in another. A fascinating yet minimally explored perspective of Canadian identity comes from those situated under the RCMP’s proverbial boots. Previously a challenging perspective to obtain, the recent availability of the Gaucher Munn Penal Press has allowed researchers a first-hand glimpse into the opinions and ideologies of those living within correctional environments. Furthermore, engaging with the prison system as an environment reveals that the popular perceptions of the RCMP do not survive the concrete and barbed wire of the carceral state.
The concept of Canadian penal press publications began on 19 May 1948, when Deputy Commissioner Joseph McCulley presented the idea to Commissioner Ralph Gibson. McCulley believed that a magazine-like publication for prisoners would “boost prison morale.”1 Unfortunately, logistical complications would delay the process until September 1951. As the first publications began circulating within Canadian correctional environments, bureaucrats and administration concluded that the publications were beneficial for “providing the expression of inmate opinion and for an exchange of views between the Administration and population.”2 As Chris Clarkson and Melissa Munn explain in their book Disruptive Prisoners, the popularity and demand for the publications allowed for public expansion. By the end of the decade, “the penal press had a diverse local, national, and international readership; it included clergy, medical personnel, teachers, labour unions, parents’ groups, community-based service agencies, guards, public and university libraries, newspapers and magazines, corporations, politicians, lawyers, and housewives, among others.”3 Most importantly, the easily accessible audience lessened prisoner isolation and allowed for communication and access to those otherwise forbidden, eliding the lines between environments “inside” and “outside.”
While inmates began excitedly drafting their first publications behind barbed wire, Canadian media outlets continued to dispense Mountie propaganda that suggested that each member risks their life to defend the sanctity of the state, secure the borders, and uphold order under Canadian law. Promotional ventures such as Historica Canada’s Heritage Minutes and Arnold Friberg’s 1963 Maintain the Right poster contributed to the widespread acceptance of RCMP presence within Canadian society. Indeed, Canadians were receptive to celebrating their national force with events such as the RCMP Musical Ride–a showcase dedicated to officers and their horses–which performed for large crowds since 1887. Even mementos like the RCMP 100-year silver coin sold out to frenzied buyers upon its initial release.
Yet the Mounties have come under fire numerous times for their role in unethical practices. In an article written by journalist John Weir and reprinted in the January 1971 penal publication The Beacon, he declares “the RCMP [to be a] secret political police establishment to protect the property, privileges and political power of the Canadian capitalist class and its US senior partners.” He continues to argue that they “are a menace to the democratic process and progress in Canada.”4 This type of public resentment amplified prisoner animosity. With penal press publications serving as a platform for protest, inmates followed suit with fevered critiques of the force.
Unsurprisingly, vilification of RCMP, provincial, and local police forces is a common trait amongst inmates. Regardless of the crimes committed by the prisoner, blame is often redirected to those preventing the continuation of crime. As the editor of the February 1974 edition of Inside News reports:
A man pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of heroin for the purpose of trafficking after two condoms containing 25 capsules were found in his rectum after his arrest at the International Airport. In sentencing the man, Judge Coughlan said he was “troubled” by … the violence the police used in making the arrest … the man complained in pre-sentence testimony that the police shoved handcuffs into his mouth, threw him to the ground, choked and kicked him when they arrested him … Judge Coughlan said in delivering sentence that the police had information that the man might have drugs in his mouth and set up methods of arresting him so that would prevent him from swallowing the heroin.5
Although Judge Coughlan opposed the treatment of the prisoner, he noted a crime had been committed nonetheless. The editor, appalled by this situation, argues that “incidents of brutality, intimidation, persecuting and the falsifying of evidence [will] not so easily [be] dismissed by the inmate, for in many a case, there are inmates serving sentences for just such a reason.”6 Similar depictions of the RCMP as an evil extension of the Canadian state appear throughout publications in the 1970s. In a 1972 publication of Drumheller Institutions Inside News, the editor explains that “RCMP officers commonly perjure themselves in court to cover flaws in their cases, persecute Indians and falsify reports to build up arrest statistics.”7 Even artwork scattered throughout various ‘70s and ‘80s publications place the RCMP on the receiving end of an inside joke. Penal press publications inevitably became an outlet for inmates to smear and chastise the image of the great Canadian Mountie; inmates became advocates and used the pages within the publication to engage in a movement that would otherwise be prohibited.
Since the beginning of modern justice, punishment has segregated criminals from society. Although geographically similar, the resulting environments are drastically different. Exposure to sunlight, for instance, is impeded by the concrete structure, lack of windows, and limited freedom. Prison environment(s) intentionally have little impact on Canadian society and the larger social environment. But considering the extensive stage the penal press provided for Canadian inmates, the wall between the segregated environments dissolved, resulting in a tremendous impact on society’s perception of the RCMP.
1 Chris Clarkson and Melissa Munn, Disruptive Prisoners (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021), 67.
2 Ibid., 70.
3 Ibid., 79.
4 John Weir, “Canada’s Secret Police,” in The Beacon (New Brunswick: Dorchester Penitentiary, January 1971), 15.
5 Edmonton Journal, “R.C.M.P,” in Inside News (Alberta: Drumheller Institution, February 1974), 9.
6 Edmonton Journal, “R.C.M.P,” in Inside News (Alberta: Drumheller Institution, February 1974), 9.