OVERCOMING GENDER LIMITS

Cathy Bell
September 08, 2014
By Cathy Bell
The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) is proud to celebrate the 40th anniversary of women in uniform. Women have been an integral part of the service since its inception in 1909 but were not recruited to uniform ranks until almost 65 years later. Referred to as 'girls' in the OPP Review magazine in 1974, then Commissioner Harold Graham proudly acknowledged that there was a definite role for women in policing but with one caveat – they had to qualify for positions in the same manner as men. The only difference was a variance in the height and weight restrictions – they had to be at least 5'4" and 110 pounds. Interestingly, there was a mandatory training component for women. They participated in 20 hours of judo, which was optional for male recruits at the time.

The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) is proud to celebrate the 40th anniversary of women in uniform. Women have been an integral part of the service since its inception in 1909 but were not recruited to uniform ranks until almost 65 years later.

Referred to as 'girls' in the OPP Review magazine in 1974, then Commissioner Harold Graham proudly acknowledged that there was a definite role for women in policing but with one caveat – they had to qualify for positions in the same manner as men. The only difference was a variance in the height and weight restrictions – they had to be at least 5'4" and 110 pounds.

Interestingly, there was a mandatory training component for women. They participated in 20 hours of judo, which was optional for male recruits at the time.

Female recruits received equal pay, joined the Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) and were said to be equal in all respects to their male colleagues – but their challenges were just beginning. Pre-1974 OPP recruiting posters touted the role of police constable as a "Career for a man who wants to go places".

As women integrated into the organization, there were some who still believed that policing was a career only suited for men. Of the 39 female recruits hired in 1974, several were terminated or resigned within the first months and years of their career. Most of the reasons were straight-forward and not related to gender but some told a different story.

There were stated instances of husbands causing trouble for their wives during work shifts and allegations of affairs with fellow officers. Several women cited difficulty adjusting to police work or working at night and some resigned when denied requests for transfer.

Female uniform members had been working toward equality since 1913 (and had just been issued revolvers) when Cst. Gerry Doucette began his career with the Toronto Police Service (TPS) in 1975. There were only five female recruits when Doucette attended Ontario Police College (OPC).

TPS police women were assigned predominantly administrative duties but a few did go out on patrol with the men. Male officers were very protective of them, recalled Doucette, ensuring they were not harassed or harmed.

Doucette left TPS in 1980 to join Timmins Police and when it hired a female, Doucette became her coach officer because he was the only member who had worked with women. His first assignment with the recruit was to keep her away from the media, as she was an instant celebrity and the public was curious about this new addition!

Now a member of the OPP, Doucette is happy to see that all the services' detachments now have female officers. Some bias still exists, he said, but as the OPP moves forward, young members accept that women have an equal place in policing.

As a current in-service training instructor, Doucette said women bring common sense rather than brute strength to deal with a situation. The hiring of females required a shift in approach and tactical communication became essential. Techniques and use of force options have evolved and allow an officer, regardless of size or stature, to do his or her job effectively, he added.

One of the issues facing all Canadian police services is the ability to recruit and retain qualified members. While the OPP has hired more than 2,000 women since the original 39 in 1974, currently only 1,300 of the just over 6,100 uniform members are female, representing 21 per cent of the workforce. This is in line with the national average and above most major Ontario police services.

"The OPP is actively recruiting qualified officers who reflect the demographics of the communities we police," said Sandy Thomas, C/Supt. in charge of the career development bureau.

"Some of the most important attributes for all recruits to possess include: professionalism, respect, leadership, community involvement and communication skills," he noted.

"The OPP has welcomed women in uniform roles since 1974 and we value the positive impact of those original members who faced unique challenges and opened doors for the advancement of women in the organization."

Over the years, women have filled most uniform positions within the OPP. Retired Commissioner Thomas O'Grady was proud to have increased diversity in the OPP during his tenure when he was succeeded by the first female commissioner, Gwen Boniface.

Boniface joined the organization in 1976 and advanced to the top spot while raising a family. She also became the first female president of the CACP.

Civilian women have held senior positions the OPP. Mary Silverthorn is currently the provincial commander of Corporate Services Command and Diane Nagel served nine years as deputy commissioner, the only civilian female to hold that rank.

The OPP is formally recognizing the 40th anniversary of uniform women at several events planned for December 2014. They will include public street displays at OPP General Headquarters, "Lunch and Learn" opportunities and a "Celebration of Women Dinner" at the Mariposa Inn in Orillia Dec. 3.

The OPP has steadily evolved since the era of skirts, nylons, heels and guns in purses!

"After forty years, the pioneering women of the OPP remain an inspiration for all recruits who have followed and will follow them," said OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes.

"In my 30 years with the OPP, I have had the privilege to work with many inspiring women – both uniform and civilian. The future holds no shortage of opportunities for recruits of all genders and backgrounds to become exceptional leaders, to innovate and to reach for even greater heights."

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