Mounties’ first civilian commissioner was a lawyer

There’s been great turmoil in the media about William Elliott, the lawyer and civil servant who is the first civilian commissioner of the RCMP. Should he wear a uniform? Can a civilian run the Mounties?

But William Elliott is not the first civilian commissioner of the Mounties. The first to hold that distinction was a lawyer named James Macleod.

Several early commissioners of the Mounties were soldiers rather than policemen, including the first, George A. French. A career British army officer, French was artillery commander at Kingston when he was seconded from the army to become commissioner of the new police force in 1873.

But French’s right-hand man, the frontline leader of the force in its early years and his successor as commissioner, was James F. Macleod. Before his appointment as second-in-command to French in 1873, Macleod had been a small-town Ontario lawyer with a practice in Bowmanville.

Macleod became a lawyer because his father, an ex-soldier who had lost seven brothers in the British military service, would not tolerate any of his sons risking the same fate. Young Macleod, an Upper Canada College grad, got a university degree from Queen’s and articled in a Kingston law firm. He was called to the bar in 1860 and practised in Bowmanville for more than a decade. 

But Macleod’s military heritage was not to be denied.  He was active in his local militia (as many lawyers were) and served in the expedition to quell the Red River uprising of 1870. Three years later, this military staff experience (plus political connections) helped get him the job as superintendent of the new North West Mounted Police under French. Macleod founded the key Mountie post that became Fort Macleod,

Alta. He led the Mounties’ early efforts to control the whisky trade and he negotiated with the Blackfoot and with Sitting Bull’s Sioux.

Macleod then fell out with Commissioner French and resigned in 1875. But French had lost Ottawa’s confidence, and Macleod returned as commissioner in 1876.  
In a way, Macleod was still practising law all this time.

From the start, the Mounties had the quasi-military structure and spirit they have retained ever since. But legal skills mattered too. In their early years, as the only law in the territories, the Mounties had a judicial function as well as a policing one, and legal training like Macleod’s was a useful asset.

Macleod, like other senior Mounties, was a stipendiary magistrate as well as a police officer. (“Stipendiary” means “paid,” unlike a lay justice of the peace. It was part of a Mountie’s job.)  Most unusually for a police force in the common-law world, the early Mounties were both a police force and a judiciary. In the new territories, they were the judges.  The Mounties themselves, and Commissioner Macleod in particular, “tried most of the suspects they arrested,” according to their historian R.C. Macleod.

So Macleod, the former small-town lawyer from Ontario, became one of the first territorial magistrates of the Northwest Territories. He retained this role during his dispute with French and when he in turn resigned as commissioner in 1880. In 1887, when the Supreme Court of the North-West Territories was created, Macleod became one of its first judges, and he remained a judge until his death in Calgary in 1894. He had been a lawyer and judge much longer than a police commander.

In 2007, William Elliott has been named commissioner, not to be a policeman, but to provide the expertise in managerial and organizational matters the Mounties urgently require. It’s not so different from the 1870s, when legal, rather than managerial, experience was what a significant part of the skill set the previous civilian commissioner brought to the force.

Operating without a cop at the top worked for the Mounties in the 19th century, and it did not prevent career policemen from aspiring to the top job. Looks like a good idea in the 21st century as well.

Christopher Moore is the author of many works about Canadian legal history. His web site is

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