Steele Collection MS 2008.

Steele in NWMP uniform

Steele repeatedly told his colleagues that he wanted to make sure his book was historically accurate. He was horrified when his first publisher, Seeley Service, asked him to add “personal incident and adventure” to the memoir.[1] While the publisher understood that Steele might not be able to add anything to the manuscript, the requested changes alarmed Steele to such a degree that he decided to find another publisher. Steele would later write to his editor, “I am anxious that the book should be accurate, but they [Seeley Service] seemed to want a romance.”[2] In Steele’s dogged determination to write a precise historical account of his years as Mountie and later in South Africa, he refused to fictionalize or exaggerate what he regarded as the “true” accounts of his life.

Ironically, in pursuit of this goal he would use letters and testimony from others in the memoir, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. For example, Steele included the first-person account of a buffalo stampede provided by former staff sergeant Frank Wyman Spicer. On 23 June 1911, former staff sergeant Spicer wrote in reply to Steele’s request for information about Jerry Potts and the NWMP.[3] In the eleven-page document, Spicer described a stampede and how Potts helped to avert the potential disaster of the buffalo crashing into Spicer, Potts, and the other men who were present that day. Spicer’s personal description of the stampede has been transformed into Steele’s first-person account of the event in the memoir. The “I” from Spicer’s original account now refers to Steele.[4] Passages such as this added “personal incident” to the memoir, as well as enhanced the “romance” of Steele’s actions and activities.


Steele Collection Scouts dismounted

NWMP scouts

Elsewhere in the memoir, Steele used material gleaned from a NWMP colleague’s letters to tell the story of the capture of the murderer of Constable Graburn. As the former commanding officer of many of the men with whom he corresponded, Steele may have felt he had a right to their stories. Also their shared experience and a shared history—in the case of both these scenes—as founding members of the NWMP perhaps explains the inclusion of these passages in Forty Years in Canada. Steele felt their history was also part of his story and part of the larger “truth” he wished to convey in his memoir. The problem was these “true accounts” were not his own. Even so, in Forty Years in Canada, Steele was the individual witnessing the stampede or on hand to provide an account of the capture of the accused murderer.

As a genre, the memoir has not historically always been bound by fidelity, even though today we punish writers who plagiarize or aggrandize their memoirs. In Forty Years in Canada, Steele is being true to himself and his goals. His stated purpose was to capture his involvement in the first four decades of Canadian history and his important contributions to his country as well as to the British Empire. By including incidents in which he was not a participant or to which he was not a witness, Steele provides information on an important chapter in NWMP history. He also embellishes his own story of a great man and leader during this period of nation building. Steele is being truthful to his stated goals, even though modern readers need to recognize that Steele’s definition of a “historically accurate account” is not necessarily theirs. Readers need to be critically aware of the constructed nature of such a memoir and question what purpose might underlie the inclusion of such incidents in a memoir like Forty Years in Canada.

[1] Seeley Service to Steele, 16 May 1913, Steele Collection, MS 2008.

[2] Steele to Niblett, 11 February 1914, Steele Collection, MS 2008.

[3] Spicer to Steele, 23 June 1911, Steele Collection, MS 2008.

[4] Steele, Forty Years in Canada (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1915): 79