Friday, June 20, 2008

Sam Steele, centralist tool

In the winter of 1884-85, Inspector Sam Steele of the NorthWest Mounted led the Mountie detatchment keeping order on the CPR line under construction in the mountains.

While the railroad-builders were on the prairies, jurisdiction was unambiguously federal: the future Alberta and Saskatchewan were still territories. Trying to help the CPR in keeping the workers sober and the construction moving, the feds declared a dry zone -- no liquor selling without a federal permit -- throughout a zone surrounding the railroad line. When the construction moved into British Columbia, the feds declared their federal jurisdiction ran with the railroad. Steele, based at Revelstoke, enthusiastically enforced the alcohol ban through the winter 1884-5 and got it expanded to 20 miles either side of the line.

In the spring of 1885 Steele headed back to the prairies to fight Louis Riel, but the enforcement continued.

Except that liquor licensing was a provincial responsibility, and British Columbia gave one Jerry Hill a licence to sell liquor in Revelstoke. When the Mounties seized Hill's liquor, B.C. issued an arrest warrant for Steele's constable. Whereupon the Mounties arrested and jailed the BC Police sent to enforce the warrant.

Eventually James MacLeod, the brains of the early Mounties, had to go west to sort this out. He readily agreed that provincial law prevailed and actually saw his own Mounties convicted and fined -- a sentence thereafter confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada. Federalism and drinking had been sustained on the BC frontier. They got the railroad built nonetheless.

All this by way of noting a new collection of Sam Steele letters and memorabilia has been acquired from its British owners by the University of Calgary and the Glenbow Institute. Steele's DBC biography is here.

Sad to say, I won't be at the Western Magazine Awards ceremony in Richmond, B.C., even though a story of mine is in contention for a Gold Award.
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