DONKIN, JOHN GEORGE, soldier, NWMP constable, author, and journalist; b. 7 June 1853 at Morpeth, England, son of Arthur Scott Donkin, md, and Mary Moor; d. 3 Jan. 1890 at Alnwick, England.
As a young man John George Donkin apparently intended to follow his father into the medical profession. He was employed for a time as a locum tenens for medical practitioners in the north of England but failed to complete his formal studies. He then tried his hand at journalism before joining the army and serving for two years as an enlisted man in the 17th Lancers.
Donkin came to Canada in April 1884 with little money and no plans. Hearing of the farming opportunities in Manitoba, he joined a group of immigrants and proceeded to Brandon where he hired himself out to a local farmer. Donkin soon found that the pursuit of husbandry was “not my forte.” He decided to “try my luck” in the North-West Mounted Police and enlisted as a constable at Winnipeg on 30 Sept. 1884. Donkin probably received a few lectures on the duties of a peace officer, although training at this time largely consisted of foot drill, small arms practice, and instruction in the care and management of horses. After his few weeks of training in Regina, Donkin was moved north to Prince Albert (Sask.) in December 1884. As he remained there throughout the North-West rebellion, he did not take part in the fighting. He did, however, get the chance to use his earlier medical experience when he was appointed hospital steward to the post
Following the rebellion, Donkin returned to Regina, where he formed part of the guard responsible for Louis Riel in the weeks before his execution in November 1885, an event Donkin did not witness. In 1886 he was promoted corporal, and spent the remainder of his service at the isolated posts of Wood Mountain, Carlyle, and Souris River, all in present-day Saskatchewan. After nearly four years in the NWMP Donkin applied for permission to purchase his discharge before the end of his five-year term. Permission was not always given, especially if the force was under strength, but Donkin was granted his release on 12 March 1888. Shortly afterwards he returned to England where he again worked as a journalist.
Donkin would have passed into obscurity had he not published, a year after his return to England, an account of his experiences under the title Trooper and redskin in the far north-west: recollections of life in the North-West Mounted Police, Canada, 1884–1888. As an ordinary constable he had served during the rebellion, come into close contact with Riel, and lived the life of a mounted policeman in the early years of western settlement. His book, however, contains little of the self-glorification, heroism, and romance that is characteristic of most literature of the period on the NWMP. From the moment he arrived on the prairies, Donkin was struck by the contrast between his own experience and the way the country was portrayed by those “journalist globetrotters” who had set forth its “wondrous glories.” The result was an unembellished account of the daily routine of mounted police life, the harshness of the climate, the rude prairie settlements, and the loneliness of police detachments. With an eye for detail, Donkin described his experiences in a candid and critical manner, leaving behind a valuable record not only of the NWMP but also of western Canada at an important period in its development.
Donkin became addicted to alcohol, a condition that probably contributed to the instability of his career. His premature death came within a few months of the publication of his book. Penniless and ill, he died in the workhouse at Alnwick from “inflammation of the lungs accelerated by excessive drinking.”
General Register Office (London), Death certificate, J. G. Donkin, 3 Jan. 1890. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Arch. (Ottawa), Service file 1094 (John George Donkin). Manitoba Daily Free Press (Winnipeg), 12 March 1890.