Calgary

From gun purses to police chiefs: Alberta's history of women in policing

Women's participation in policing has made massive leaps since the days of gun purses. Alberta has increased the number of women in its forces at a rate more than four times the national average, according to Statistics Canada. Female officers are applauding the progress, but caution there's more work to do to recruit and retain women in law enforcement. 

Officers weigh in on the strides policing has made and the work that remains to be done

Calgary police 'Les Girls,' Margaret Gilkes, Maggie Hettler, Nora Peavoy, and Isa 'Butch' Buccini, pictured in 1950. (Calgary Police Service/Supplied)

When Christine Silverberg became a police officer, women were still issued badges that said "policewoman" and many of her female colleagues weren't issued firearms. 

In 1974, it was a struggle to find a bulletproof vest that fit properly. The Kevlar equipment meant to protect you from bullets wasn't shaped for women.

Silverberg eventually wanted to write the exams needed for a promotion to sergeant. She was told those spots weren't for women. She wrote the exams anyway and got the top mark in her cohort.

Two decades later, she became Calgary's first female police chief in 1995 — not long after her predecessors were issued purses to carry their guns. 

This newspaper clipping appeared in a paper in the U.K. after Annie May Jackson was made the first female constable in Canada. (Edmonton Police Service/Edmonton)

In 1912, Edmonton's Annie May Jackson became the first female constable in Canada. Her duties? To look after the morals and manners of the city's young girls.

Women's participation in policing has made massive leaps since the days of gun purses. Alberta has recently increased the number of women in its forces at a rate more than four times the national average, according to Statistics Canada. Female officers are applauding the progress, but say there's more work to do in terms of recruiting and retaining women in law enforcement. 

"It's one thing appointing a woman into a senior officer position," Silverberg said.

"It's another thing altogether to drive that kind of change that is needed in what still is in many respects a paramilitary organization." 

Four officers who spoke with CBC News spoke said issues like discrimination, accommodating families and misconceptions about the profession are still barriers for women in policing.

Between 2015 and 2019 the number of female officers in Alberta increased by more than 30 per cent, according to data from Statistics Canada. The national increase was 6.5 per cent over the same period. 

Christine Silverberg was Calgary's chief of police from 1995 to 2000. (CBC)

Lauren Weare, an RCMP inspector currently in charge of the Airdrie detachment, wanted to join the force after a presentation at school in Grade 10. 

But there was a catch.

"They had a height restriction," she said. "I was 5-4 and it was 5-6 for women. So that quickly let the air out of my balloon." 

When the height requirement changed, Weare joined the force in 1987.

The RCMP welcomed its first female officers in 1974. Women now make up just under 22 per cent of all members, including 763 women in Alberta's 'K' Division.

Thirty-two dedicated women get ready to change the face of the RCMP. 1:58

Weare says she's always been treated fairly, but struggled as a single parent working on-call shifts. 

"I remember waking my child up in the middle of the night and driving her into the detachment and popping her over to the guard and having them look after her while I went about my business." 

Insp. Lauren Weare wanted to be a police officer after a high school presentation. She now leads the Airdrie detachment of the RCMP. (CBC News)

All the officers who spoke with CBC News said considerations for members with children is still a concern. The women said there can be a sense of pressure not to call in sick while pregnant or use family matters as a reason to take time off. 

"I don't think it's anyone's intention to hold females back for that reason, but I think it's a consequence of life circumstances," said Christina Witt, a homicide detective with Calgary Police Service (CPS) and an instructor at Mount Royal University.

"I don't see that changing anytime soon, to be honest."

Sgt. Stacey McKinnon works in recruitment at CPS. She, like Weare, first saw a female officer at a career fair. 

"I was like, 'Hey, if she could do it, maybe I could too.'"

Sgt. Stacey McKinnon helps run recruitment for the Calgary Police Service. (CBC News)

The Second World War depleted the number of men available for policing in the city and, by 1940, Calgary's women's council proposed women should fill those gaps. Two women were hired part-time in 1943. For a number of years after, the force had a rule that no more than four women could be working at any given time — and they were required to be unmarried.

The struggle to accommodate a career and a family is still prevalent in recruiting today.

When gender data first started to be collected in 1986, women made up four per cent of police officers. By 2019, women accounted for an average of 22 per cent of police force personnel (27 per cent in Calgary), according to Statistics Canada. That same year, women made up 19 per cent of CPS applicants and 32 per cent of those hired. 

Statistics Canada data shows a steady year-over-year increase in the number of female police officers. (Statistics Canada)

Each officer said leadership and recruiters could do better at dispelling misconceptions about the duties, facilitating female mentorship and emphasizing the skills women can bring to the table. There was one attribute, in particular, that each of them mentioned: communication skills.  

"It's not about foot chases and who can punch someone," Witt said. 

"Our strongest tools always are verbal skills, and that is our best ability to de-escalate situations. And anything that you use beyond that, you get good training."

CPS has been reaching out to potential recruits through women's sports teams. The Canada Border Services Agency has also partnered with them to hold hiring workshops specifically aimed at women. 

"It's not about who's the toughest and the biggest person in the room. A lot of it is down to communication and women do have what it takes," McKinnon said. 

Isa Buccini and Margaret Sadler pose for a photo in 1958. (Calgary Police Service/Supplied)

The women applauded efforts to address problems like sexual harassment in police organizations, but the two veterans of police forces said there's more to be done. 

"I feel that the organization has come a really long way in addressing harassment in the RCMP. Can we still do better? I think we always can do better," Weare said. 

Despite the positive evolutions in policing over the years, Silverberg agrees. 

"Police officers don't have badges that say 'police women', they don't carry guns in purses ... But there's been a failure to fully address the more systemic issues inside the organization," she said. 

"I am a great believer that the excellence of policing is predicated on the excellence within the organization." 

Female officers were often not issued firearms. When they were, they were provided with a gun purse for the weapon, rather than a holster. (Calgary Police Service/Supplied)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elise von Scheel is a reporter and producer with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau, currently working in Calgary. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.

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