Indigenous men who served as RCMP special constables, providing crucial land skills, guidance and knowledge to Mounties for generations, are finally getting their due.
A new exhibit at Yellowknife's museum is delving into the history and role RCMP special constables played in the North. The territorial government invited former special constables and their families to the opening of the Canada 150 exhibit, called We Took Care of Them, on Thursday at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
"[This] event recognizing special constables is history in the making," said Richard Binder, whose father Otto Binder was a special constable for 25 years.
"The specials were the RCMP's GPS in those days, because they knew the land. They were their guides. They were their interpreters. They provided the necessary tools so that the members would learn how to survive in a real harsh environment."
For the past three years, staff at the museum worked to gather and record stories of special constables and their family members. The lead interviewer was former CBC broadcaster Paul Andrew.
"I had probably the most fun with this whole thing because I went out into the communities, identified the special constables, and actually talked to them," Andrew said.
"They had the funny moments, they had of course some of the tragic moments … and some wonderful stories."
Andrew said he talked to constables who worked in the North up to 60 years ago, as well as their families.
"They were so happy to talk about their families and the contributions that they made that I didn't know about it. That was the wonderful thing about it," he said.
The exhibit also honours seamstresses and interpreters who contributed their knowledge and "played significant supporting roles" to the RCMP, according to a news release from the museum.
Hunt for the Mad Trapper
N.W.T. Education Minister Alfred Moses has a personal connection to the exhibit, and also spearheaded the idea during the last legislative assembly, after he visited the RCMP Heritage Centre in Regina.
"[It] got me asking questions about why don't we have those artifacts in the North or talk about the special constables that have done a lot of amazing work here with the RCMP G Division over the years," said Moses.
"It wasn't just the special constables, but it was the families of the special constables, it was the communities that took care of the RCMP."
Moses's father, Winston, and his grandfather were both special constables. His grandfather was stationed in Old Crow, Yukon, in the 1930s during the famous manhunt for Albert Johnson, known as the Mad Trapper.
"My dad and another policeman joined the hunt," said Winston Moses, who also contributed to the exhibit.
"My father was there in the actual shootout. One time I pushed him about it. I know he was disturbed because of this."
Winston Moses said the RCMP called the constables "special" because they knew the members couldn't survive without them.
Sarah Jerome's father-in-law was a special constable stationed in Aklavik, and also took part in the hunt for the Mad Trapper.
"It's just overwhelming for all the elders that participated in the interviews. We were so thankful that finally the special constables across the North were being recognized," she said.
"Now the children, the grandchildren the great grandchildren are going to learn about their relatives who took on that role as a special constable and how proud they were. How strong they were."
Reconciliation for 'checkered relationship'
Andrew said the exhibit is about more than honouring the legacy of special constables.
"We're finding out more and more through this particular project that Aboriginal people had a big impact on policing in the North," Andrew said.
"There are some probably some checkered relationships between the RCMP and Aboriginal people in the North. This is part of the idea of starting a reconciliation and a healing between two very important parts.
"Aboriginal people know that they need the RCMP. And I think, even to this day, the RCMP know and realize that they need Aboriginal people to service the people in the Northwest Territories better."
Family members of special constables from Aklavik, Inuvik, Ulukhaktok and Tsiigehtchic were flown in by special charter to attend the opening of the exhibit.
In the coming months, there will also be an online exhibit and six community exhibits that will travel with RCMP members.