Policing Indigenous Peoples on Two Colonial Frontiers: Australia's Mounted Police and Canada's North-West Mounted Police

Article excerpt

This article examines the ways in which colonial policing and punishment of Indigenous peoples evolved as an inherent part of the colonial state-building process on the connected 19th century frontiers of south-central Australia and western Canada. Although there has been some excellent historical scholarship on the relationship between Indigenous people, police and the law in colonial settings, there has been little comparative analysis of the broader, cross-national patterns by which Indigenous peoples were made subject to British law, most especially through colonial policing practices. This article compares the roles, as well as the historical reputations, of Australia's mounted police and Canada's North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in order to argue that these British colonies, being within the ambit of the law as British subjects did not accord Indigenous peoples the rights of protection that status was intended to impart.

Keywords: colonial policing, colonial justice, Indigenous people and the law, comparative history


By the 1840s Indigenous peoples across Australia's colonies were considered British subjects, in theory protected by and subject to the rule of law. Yet as the historical records of 19th century Australia and other parts of the British Empire show, 'being within rather than beyond the pale of English law' did not accord Indigenous peoples the protection their status as British subjects was intended to impart (Evans, 2005, pp. 57-58). The dilemmas of attempting to impose a rule of law upon a people who in a legal sense were, but in a practical sense were not, subject to it were not unique to the Australian frontier, but were faced across the British Empire by colonial administrators who had to facilitate European settlement in regions already occupied by Indigenous peoples. Through a comparative analysis of Australian and Canadian frontiers, this essay will consider how policing and punishment evolved as an inherent 'part of the processes of colonial state-building' (Dunstall & Godfrey, 2005, p. 2). Most specifically, it will examine the practical ways in which the rule of law was brought to bear upon Indigenous peoples in order to ask how effectively colonial governments met the principle of providing Indigenous peoples with legal protection as British subjects. Although there has been some excellent Australian and other regional and national historical scholarship that has addressed the relationship between Indigenous people, police and the law across the British Empire and in other jurisdictions, (1) there has been surprisingly little comparative analysis of the processes by which Indigenous peoples were policed on 19th-century colonial frontiers that witnessed the subjugation of Indigenous sovereignty to the authority of the colonial state. (2)

While Canada's North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) was a centrally organised body that marched west, Australia's mounted police forces were regionally organised from colony to colony. In this essay we will concentrate on the policing histories of western Canada's prairies and of the interior corridor of south and central Australia as the two regions that offer most fruitful points of comparison. Aside from their shared origins as British colonies, these regions experienced similar difficulties in the expansion of settlement into the interior, a process that took place in the second half of the 19th century when, unlike in Australia's and Canada's earlier settled colonies, Indigenous peoples were already considered to be within the ambit of colonial law as British subjects. (3) As territories that came under colonial control relatively late in the history of the British Empire, they shared patterns in their demographic evolution and questions concerning the amenability of Indigenous peoples to British law. In both jurisdictions, colonial governments relied upon mounted police forces to facilitate Indigenous people's subjugation to colonial law and aid the establishment of agricultural and early industrial capitalist economies through land acquisition and settlement. …