It’s unfashionable today to recall the settlement of the West as a romantic era. Yet not every sodbuster was an agent of genocide, and very many sincere people dedicated their lives to building up a young country with genuine affection for the land and its people. When Sam Steele lay on his deathbed in England in 1919, he asked that they bury him in Winnipeg where he started his career as a $1.25-a day constable with the North-West Mounted Police.
Well into the 1950s, generations of Canadian schoolchildren remembered Sam Steele as the most famous policeman in the country. He was renowned not for any extraordinary crime-busting exploit, but as an honest lawman in an era of hornswogglers. Steele was famous enough that he published his 1914 memoirs Forty Years In Canada, and his son Harwood in 1956 recounted Steele’s life in The Morning Call – “a truly wretched book” filled with many factual errors, writes historian Rod Macleod, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.
Macleod fills the gap with Sam Steele: A Biography, a colourful true-to-life account of the man and his incredible era. Macleod captures a land we left behind, when Western Canada was a white space on the 19th century map interrupted only by remote outposts: Fort Garry, Fort Macleod, Fort Calgary, Fort Edmonton.
Steele at 26 joined a Mounted Police trek from Winnipeg to Edmonton. Today it is a 14-hour drive. It took them four months, riding with two field guns and 93 cattle butchered for meat along the way. “The routine was one of very early starts,” writes Macleod: up by 4 am and riding all day through heat and cold.
Prof. Macleod recounts a visit by Governor General Lord Stanley to Alberta’s Blood Reserve in 1889: “The Governor General and his entourage arrived in Lethbridge by train but from there they traveled in carriages and slept in tents for a couple of days. There were only nine people in the party but they certainly did not travel light; Steele had to provide a mounted escort and fourteen four-horse teams for the party and their baggage.” Later Lord Stanley relaxed with a wolf hunt in the foothills. Much later he invented the Stanley Cup.
Steele achieved fame in the Yukon gold rush acting as police, court and customs officer among hard-drinking prospectors on the Alaska frontier. Steele himself could down a quart of whiskey at a sitting, but was so scrupulous in his professional duties it made him a national hero.
“We had a dreadful time of it going down some enormous hills,” Steele wrote in 1898. “Our horses frequently fell, and mine rolled over me several times.”
In Yukon Territory, Steele decreed no prospector could make his way to the gold camps without six months’ worth of supplies – that’s a ton of food – and none could depart without paying a 10 percent federal royalty on mining profits. “What on earth right have a few thousand foreigners to take out of the country that there is in it for nothing?” wrote Steele. “We provide them with officers, peace, order and law and must the rest of the people of Canada pay for that?”
Sam Steele: A Biography captures the land when it was all big sky and windswept Prairie, and rugged people trying to create a nation.
By Holly Doan
Sam Steele: A Biography, by Rod Macleod; University of Alberta Press; 320 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-4798; $39.99