WHAT’S IN A UNIFORM
By Andrew Maksymchuk
By Andrew Maksymchuk
1012 words – MR
What’s in a uniform?
by Andrew F. Maksymchuk
Like many old retirees, I usually end my day watching the nightly national news. A well-spoken, young OPP officer at the scene of a highway washout captured my attention one evening.
She was neatly and properly attired and wore headgear (peak cap in this instance), which so often seems to be missing these days. The sense of confidence she exuded commanded respect, as did her tidy and properly-worn uniform. Shoulder patches and badge made it immediately clear that she was a member of the OPP. Having once been connected with that well-reputed organization, I was immediately filled with pride – and taken back more than 48 years to the day I first put on my uniform.
I joined the OPP in March 1964 but worked in civilian clothes until mid-May, when my uniform finally arrived. The sergeant in charge of the Kenora detachment handed me the boxes and told me to take them home and return in uniform as soon as possible. Back at my rooming house I tore into the packages. Over a long-sleeved light blue shirt and dark blue clip-on tie I eased into the navy-blue serge tunic and trousers. Bright red piping ran up the outside seam of the trouser legs to enhance the navy hue. The gold triangular shoulder patches identified the wearer as with the OPP.
I pulled on the heavy black leather boots, then the matching Sam Browne, consisting of a wide waist belt and narrow over-the-right-shoulder cross strap. It would carry my revolver in a flapped holster, cross-draw fashion on the left, and my handcuffs in a pouch on my right. I retrieved a small billy from another box and fitted the eight inch long, lead-filled leather “sap” into a special narrow rear pocket. I placed the peak cap with metal badge and maple leaf-embroidered black band on my head and proudly walked the long way back to the detachment – occasionally glancing at my reflection in the store windows and noticing the public noticing me.
I was expected to keep the leather boots and Sam Browne well polished; wear the peak cap at all times, even while driving or riding in a cruiser (those unfortunate extra tall guys just had to slump down in the seat during daylight hours); wear the tunic at all times except during the “summer” period from mid-May to mid-September – even on hot days outside that time period; and keep the sleeves of the long-sleeved shirt (the only type issued) rolled down and buttoned year ’round. Supervisors ensured that all rules were adhered to, for if a subordinate was caught by a higher rank, the supervisor would also be taken to task for “poor supervision.”
No uniforms existed when the OPP was established in October, 1909; the mere idea was considered absurd and opposed by many members. By May 1910 however, uniforms similar to the blue serge tunics of Canada’s Dominion Police were decided upon, with the exception of the spiked helmets. Stetson hats were favoured as being more serviceable.
The requirement to wear a uniform caused such indignation that a few members of the newly-established force resigned in protest. One highly-respected officer with 21 years of police experience, Charles Mahony, refused to wear the new uniform. Mahoney, inspector of criminal investigations, had received a medal for bravery and had been shot twice in two separate gun battles. However, despite a petition sent to the attorney general and a delegation of 14 prominent men protesting his suspension to the local MPP, he was terminated.
Mahony did not stay out of police work for very long. Within a few months he was on his way to Saskatchewan to serve as special constable in the attorney general’s department. Six years later he would be asked to form the Saskatchewan Provincial Police (SPP).
Saskatchewan became a province in 1905 and the new government contracted with the North West Mounted Police to provide provincial policing. When the now Royal North West Mounted Police refused to enforce the province’s newly-enacted liquor prohibition law in 1916, the government decided to form its own provincial force. Mahony was appointed its first commissioner and given the formidable task of establishing the SPP within three weeks.
Despite his aversion toward uniforms, Mahony outfitted his members with brown boots and leggings, khaki breeches with red stripe and a long khaki tunic with close neck collar. Headgear was a Stetson hat with the brim turned up on the left side similar to the South African bushman’s hat. Dress for the officers varied little, except for an open tunic with shirt and tie along with a khaki forage cap. I could find nothing to indicate whether Mahony ever wore one.
Mahony was the first, and only, SPP commissioner. Less than 12 years after its formation, it was disbanded in 1928 for economic reasons and Saskatchewan returned, under contract, to the now Royal Canadian Mounted Police for its policing.
Mahony had a reputation as being “an honest law enforcer, fair in his dealings and able to enforce discipline without ruling with an iron hand, couldn’t be swayed by politicians of influence, frugal with his finances.” Was he right in his stand against the uniform issue? Was his termination the correct action to take?
Police uniforms have changed greatly over the years. An ongoing, harmonious and hard-working relationship between management and associations, involving constant research and change, provides for uniforms and equipment with the best in comfort, serviceability, protection and appearance.
I saved thousands of dollars by not having to buy work clothing over my 31 year career. Wearing my uniform as required and keeping it clean and tidy was little to ask in return.
All police officers should take pride in wearing a uniform that changes with the times yet, if properly worn and maintained, not only provides for the best in worker safety but presents a professional appearance we can all be proud of.
Andrew F. Maksymchuk is a retired OPP Inspector (Ret’d.) now living in Vernon, B.C.