by Elvin Klassen
February is Black History Month, offering the opportunity to participate in activities that honour the legacy of black Canadians.
“As Canadians, it’s important to remember those who came before us, and the sacrifices they made to help build the country we have today,” noted citzenship, immigration and multiculturalism minister Jason Kenney in a statement.
“Central to our history and how we built our great democracy is the important contributions of Canadians of African and Caribbean descent. Black History Month provides all Canadians with the opportunity to learn more about the history of a community whose legacy stretches back to the origins of our country.
“While black Canadians have made significant contributions to all areas of Canadian life, this year we are focusing our celebrations on the contributions of black Canadians in law enforcement – both past and present pioneers.
In celebration of this month the Victoria Police Department (VPD) reflects on the story of its “black constables”, who were among the first officers to patrol the city’s streets in the mid-1800s and form a unique part of the city’s history.
In April 1858, a group of about 35 black immigrants arrived in Victoria aboard the Steamship <Commodore.> Fleeing the racial attitudes of pre-Civil War California, they had apparently corresponded with Sir James Douglas (1803-1877) about relocating to the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island. They were part of the 30,000 who came north, mostly through Victoria, to get a mining license and head out in search of gold.
Douglas, who had been a fur trader and was in charge of an area of the Fraser River where gold had been discovered, announced that no abuses would be tolerated, and that the laws would protect the rights of the Indians no less than those of the white men. He gained respect from the prospectors, claimed the land for Britain and became the first governor of the area in 1858. He was later knighted for his services.
Hoping to enjoy the rights, privileges and freedoms of all members of a British Colony, eight to 10 men from this black immigrant community became members of one of the first organized police units in Victoria. The “black constables” performed their tasks admirably but soon met the same racial prejudices that they had hoped to leave behind, and their service ended after approximately two months.
Even though racial prejudices meant the end of their own Victoria police careers, it is these mens’ bravery, courage and determination to begin anew that the department reflects on this month.
The story of the constables was researched by Cst. Jonathan Sheldan, who has been with the VPD for 21 years. Presently a detective with the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit, he volunteers out of his own interest as the departmental historian.
The mannequin with the uniform is provided by Kathleen Cantelon and displayed at the Victoria City Hall during the Black History event. Normally it resides in the police department museum and gift shop. Funding is provided by the Victoria Police Diversity Unit and Victoria Police Historical Society.
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