HIGH HOPES & HIGH HEELS
October 7, 2014 By Irene Lawrenson
I had no definite plans for the future after graduating York University in April 1974 with a BA in Geography and Anthropology. A
I hadn’t considered policing as a career. Women worked in some municipal police agencies but were relegated to the youth bureau, vice or being “matrons” guarding female prisoners.
Court victories in the 1970’s led to the elimination of discrimination and increased diversity in traditionally male vocations like policing. Suddenly there was an incredible chance to do something different with my life; an opportunity to actually be “a pioneer.” I applied and became one of the first 36 women hired by the Ontario Provincial Police.
My original posting was Brantford detachment (west of Hamilton). I was the first and (except for a brief nine month period) only female officer working alongside 45 men for the next 10 years.
I bounded up the stairs to the front door my first day, only to be welcomed by this comment from a constable on his way out. “I don’t agree with females being hired as policemen. Never did. Never will. So don’t call me for back up.”
My uniform included a miniskirt, pantyhose and a purse to carry a gun, handcuffs, tampons and lipstick. I would ruin many a pair of pantyhose leaping over guardrails, trudging through forests looking for lost children or doing point duty in the bitter cold.
I worked shift work, found missing children, investigated vehicle collisions, break-ins, assaults, charged traffic violators and impaired drivers and was exposed to death – accidental, suicidal and homicidal. I never felt that I couldn’t do the job – yet I thought about quitting every week over those first years. It wasn’t the work or the “clientele.” It was because I felt alienated and isolated.
As a young, single woman I was ostracized and had no social life. Officers’ wives didn’t want me attending their parties and few young civilian men wanted to have much to do with a female cop who only had one weekend off per month.
Although 90 per cent of the officers I worked with were wonderful – supportive, helpful and kind – the other 10 per cent made being a lone woman in a 45 member detachment “difficult.” It was complicated. I felt like an outsider, not privy to the same information, banter and respect.
I worked alone those first years before two-officer patrol cars became the norm. That didn’t bother me. I accomplished more and there was no doubt in the public’s eye as to who was in charge. If I worked with a man, they would crowd around him, assuming he was in charge. I was invariably outside the circle trying to get people to understand that I was the investigating officer.
I had committed to trying policing for two years before moving on. The Montreal Olympics – the first Games after the terrorism in Munich, Germany – changed that. That’s where I met (then) OPP Cpl. Ralph Lawrenson. Two years later we were married. Being committed to him, I was by extension also committed to a career in the OPP.
With both of us on shifts, we spent many years like passing ships in the night. After about eight years, I needed a change and enrolled in courses in a brand new field that had some potential to catch on – “computer sciences.”
Within a year the OPP started its first computer services branch and I won one of the six available positions. We did everything at first – security, back-up, training, audit – but the field exploded so rapidly that we were soon specializing. I chose training and ended up traveling throughout Ontario installing computers and training officers on data entry, retrieval and analysis.
With my husband’s support (and I needed that because confidence can erode quickly in an all-male environment) I competed for promotion. Along with Dona Brown and Ginny Aitchison, I became one of the first three female OPP corporals. A few years later, I became the first female staff sergeant. This accomplishment made it to the front page of the
With promotions came reassignments – media relations, community services and then, auspiciously, I became the citizen support unit – a new portfolio to deal with domestic violence, sexual assault, child and elder abuse and any other victims of crime. My role wasn’t investigative; it was to change how police dealt with these matters through policy development and awareness.
These were new areas of interest in policing. For years, domestic violence was considered a private matter between a man and “his wife.” Incest and child abuse were not talked about and no one had even heard of elder abuse. Women were finding their voice and speaking out for the first time.
“Break the silence” was the motto for the times. Battered women shelters and rape crisis centers were being established. Laws were being challenged and changed – and so was policing.
For the first 15 years no more than two per cent of OPP officers were female. Each recruit class had one or two women, just enough to replenish those leaving due to shift work, child and elder care or simply disillusionment.
All that changed with affirmative action in the US (employment equity here in Canada). Systemic barriers such as height and weight restrictions were identified and eliminated. Assigned to the clothing and equipment committee, I was able to influence my peers to eliminate the very impractical uniform skirts, introduce a maternity uniform, and the small meter-maid hat we had to wear.
My husband and I adopted two Romanian orphan girls who had been institutionalized since birth.
I was promoted to inspector shortly after returning to work after parental leave – the first female to earn the rank through the regular OPP promotional process. I became the manager of the OPP’s Employment Equity Unit. Recruit classes were gender balanced for the first time ever and the number of female officers increased to 14 per cent!
The provincial employment equity legislation was rescinded after five years, my job disappeared and I was re-assigned to policy and planning.
In my final years with the OPP, I was the corporate lead for the implementation of Restorative Justice and the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which replaced the Young Offenders Act.
After more than 30 years of policing I retired from the OPP in 2005, the first female commissioned officer to do so.
Since retiring I have become a professional volunteer sitting on numerous boards, including Couchiching Jubilee House (a transition home for women in crisis), North Simcoe Victim Crisis Services, Barrie Out of the Cold and Colborne St. Clinic.
2014 marks the 40th anniversary of women in OPP operational policing roles. They have become an integral part of the service, greatly influencing the quality of the police profession. I am proud to have been at the forefront of those positive changes.
Irena Lawrenson was one of the first female OPP officers and became the highest ranking member of the first group. The mother of two girls, she is now retired in the Barrie, ON, area and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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