Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.
Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.
Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.
Film still from the R.C.M.P series, “Storm O’Brien,” by Crawley Films Ltd., 1959
This series set out to create a more realistic picture of Canada’s Mounties. It hints at complex and difficult relationships—with Indigenous peoples, for example. Still, the overall look and feel is surprisingly romantic.
Tell us about yourself
My research interests focus on Canada’s northern peoples and exploration in the Canadian Arctic documented in government-sponsored films, lesser-known independent and unpublished amateur films, as well as home movies. When the opportunity arises, I turn my efforts towards often-forgotten orphaned films that require much needed attention, with the hopes of making them accessible.
My interest in LAC’s oral history collection began as a reference archivist, and later it became one of my major acquisition portfolios. This fueled a need to conduct donor interviews, as part of the long-established National Archives oral history program. Since 2015, I have been co-lead of LAC’s newly established Oral History Initiative—an oral history interview program that gives voice to and celebrates donors and LAC employees alike.
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The following is a sampling of early RCMP content from LAC’s vast collection of audiovisual records. The information is arranged in three categories: early fictional television dramas; early fictional feature films; and early documentaries and amateur films.
The RCMP portrayed in early fictional television dramas
The R.C.M.P. series was produced in 1959–1960 by Crawley Films Ltd., in partnership with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Based on actual cases from the RCMP files, these 39 half-hour shows were filmed in 35 mm black-and-white, and were broadcast in Canada, England, and Australia.
LAC acquired the Crawley Films fonds in 1983. The holdings consist of 38,837 film reels, 12,800 photographs, 42 metres of textual records, and other media. Crawley Films was officially founded in 1939 by Frank Radford “Budge” Crawley and Judith Crawley in Ottawa. Amongst the various categories of film that Crawley Films produced—industrial, feature, documentary, animation, and commercials—the R.C.M.P. television drama series really set Crawley Films apart from other production companies.
Canadians welcomed television into their homes in 1952, and by 1955 there were 23 television stations operating in Canada, where demand was growing for more content to be aired. In 1958, “Budge”, struck a partnership with the CBC and the BBC to produce a series that was to be the “day to day story of Canada’s federal police force.”
Munroe Scott, one of the script writers for the series, explained why Crawley Films chose the theme: “The RCMP fascinated us because they’d been into virtually every aspect of Canadian life. The story lines for each episode were meant to reflect mostly real life, although they were dramatized for television purposes.”
To produce the episodes, Crawley Films purchased 40 acres of land near Chelsea, Quebec, where an 8,500-square foot studio was built. The towns of Aylmer, Quebec and Outlook, Saskatchewan, stood in for the fictional western town of Shamattawa. Gilles Pelletier, a French-speaking actor, played the lead role of Corporal Jacques Gagnier, who was the head of the detachment. John Perkins played Constable Frank Scott, and Don Francks as the rookie sidekick Constable Bill Mitchell. Recurring roles of Special Constable Ben Aputagen was played by Angus Baptiste and Mayor Bill Cartwright, by Bernard McManus.
LAC has a complete set of the 39 episodes, as well as a version of episode 18, The Hunt, in German. Viewers tuned in to watch the series on CBC, Wednesdays at 8:00 pm. A list of all the episodes was compiled by The Classic TV Archive.
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Prior to the R.C.M.P. series, and already popular amongst viewers and listeners was the American fictional drama adventure series of 78 episodes, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, broadcast on CBS television between 1955 and 1958. The series was based on Sergeant William Preston, a Canadian Mountie with the North West Mounted Police, patrolling the wilds of the Yukon with his horse Rex and his faithful dog Yukon King. Together they fought evildoers in northern parts during the Gold Rush of the 1890s.
The television series was based on the popular radio drama, Challenge of the Yukon, a 15-minute radio serial about Sergeant Preston that first aired in Detroit between 1938 and 1947, and then on different radio stations up until 1955. The series was written by Tom Dougall, who was influenced by the poems of Robert W. Service. For those eager to travel down memory lane, the Old Time Radio Researchers Group website has all 609 radio episodes. LAC has some episodes of Challenge of the Yukon and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.
The RCMP portrayed in early fictional feature films
An iconic Canadian symbol, the RCMP was portrayed in several hundred Hollywood fictional works which saturated the film industry. Classics such as Rose-Marie (1936), a musical by MGM, and Renfrew of the Royal Mounted,(1937), a series of eight features by Criterion Pictures Corporation were distributed throughout North America and elsewhere.
The earliest fictional feature about Mounties was The Cattle Thieves (1909), made by the American-based Kalem Company, which was the first film studio to travel to Canada to film dramas on location. In doing so, they introduced the Northwest Mounted Police to the American public. American production companies also produced films with Canadian plots that were filmed on location in the U.S., a pattern followed well into the 1950s, when the emphasis was on the romance of Canada’s vast wilderness. A recurring cast of characters often included a French-Canadian trapper or lumberjack as the villain, a few Aboriginal people, miners, prospectors, whisky runners, and of course, a “noble Mountie.”
On the King’s Highway (1915) was an early Mountie drama story, directed by A.J. Edwards, of the Conness Till Film Company of Toronto, and the James Oliver Curwood story, Wapi the Walrus that became Back to God’s Country (1919), Canada’s earliest surviving feature film. Film historian Peter Morris described the story as a “melodramatic triangle of heroine, hero, and villain, with a setting in the wilds of North Canada, a dog as co-hero, plus bears, living amid their natural surroundings in the snow fastness of the North, and the omnipresent North West Mounted Police.”
Cameron of the Royal Mounted (1921) is a silent fictional adventure feature with English intertitles, made by Winnipeg Productions Ltd., and based on the book, Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police, by Ralph Connor. It tells the story of a young man who comes to Canada escaping arrest for forging a cheque. He falls in love but is shot by a jealous rival. The occasion presents itself to join the RNWMP. He rescues his kidnapped girlfriend, and clears his name of the initial offense. What really sets this feature apart from others is the bold decision to cast real Mounties from the RNWMP Fort McLeod post in Alberta as extras. LAC has an incomplete version of the film, with only two reels of a six-part feature.
Other films include Policing the Plains (1927) by A.D. Kean of Canadian Historic Features Ltd. in Vancouver, and His Destiny (1928) also known as North of 49 by British Canadian Pictures Ltd. in Calgary. The latter was shot on location in Alberta, and includes scenes of the 1928 Calgary Stampede. LAC has two incomplete versions.
The RCMP portrayed in early documentaries and amateur films
There are plenty of films made about the Mounties but not as many made by them. LAC has over 1,230 moving image and sound records for both governmental and private collections documenting activities of the RCMP. Documentaries provide a narrative of activities and events, such as Through the Northwest Passage, a film documenting a unique voyage in the history of navigation. The documentary shot by Corporal F.S. Farrar tells the story of the voyage of the wooden schooner St. Roch, Captain Henry Larsen, and her eight member crew as they sail from Vancouver, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia via the Northwest Passage from 1940 to 1942.
Amateur films play a significant role in documenting history, culture, and lives and activities of individuals. Many archives aim to promote their broader value or significance, as they are considered primary source material in the context of the historical record, especially given the increasing demand from researchers for their invaluable use in productions, sociological studies, websites, exhibitions, and more.
Real life stories about Mounties are also told through amateur footage. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, Henry Larsen shot seven reels of amateur film documenting varied activities, people and places encountered during his northern voyages.
In 1932, Doug Betts became an RCMP Constable and trained at the Fairmont Barracks in Vancouver. Shortly afterwards, he was posted to Dawson, Yukon Territory and Whitehorse, and was promoted to the rank of Corporal in the late 1940s.
The Norman Betts fonds consists of 23 reels of silent black-and-white 8 mm home movies. Corporal Doug Betts was an avid cameraman who took his camera on various work assignments, as well as during recreational leave, documenting placer mining operations, patrols by dog sled, investigation of a plane crash site, assisted hunting parties, and more. In addition, LAC conducted a donor interview with Doug Betts’ son Norman, to gain contextual information about the silent films.
Caroline Forcier-Holloway is an Audiovisual Archivist at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). During her career at LAC, she has worked in various capacities beginning in 1989 as a Specialized Audiovisual Reference Archivist, General Reference Archivist, Film Researcher, and finally, an Audiovisual Archivist. Since 2000, she has acquired audiovisual fonds and collections of oral history, and Aboriginal and northern content, as well as French and English, private and government, professional and amateur filmmakers and broadcasters.