Ottawa

Canada's 1st Filipina police officer reflects on the changing face of the force

For 29 years, Sgt. Maria Keen, the first Filipina police officer in all of Canada, has tried to show a different side of the Ottawa Police Service.

For 29 years, Sgt. Maria Keen has tried to show a different side of the Ottawa Police Service

Sgt. Maria Keen has been an Ottawa police officer for 29 years. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

For 29 years, Sgt. Maria Keen, the first Filipina police officer in all of Canada, has tried to show a different face of the Ottawa Police Service (OPS).

She was hired in August 1992 by what was then the Nepean Police Service, which amalgamated with other regional forces to become today's OPS.

"I didn't always want to be a police officer," Keen said before parade for her late afternoon shift one Friday in May.

Growing up in Toronto in a traditional Filipino household, Keen always thought her parents would choose her profession for her, and that she would go along with their choice.

It was a summer program run by the National Capital Alliance on Race Relations that first exposed Keen to the possibility of a career in policing. (Submitted)

"They wanted me to either be a nurse, a doctor or a lawyer," she said.

Then, one summer after graduating from Carleton University, she was offered a placement in a program run by the National Capital Alliance on Race Relations that was meant to show a diverse student what policing entailed.

She worked at what would become the Ottawa Police Service's Greenbank Road station. The placement included a ride-along with a patrol officer. 

"That was it. I had the bug," she recalled. "I knew this was a job I wanted to do because it was something different every day."

1st Filipina officer in Canada

When she applied, Keen didn't know there weren't any other Filipina officers in the country. Even growing up in a diverse city like Toronto, she didn't see female Asian police officers out on the streets.

Keen was recruited that summer and was offered a job. She kept it a secret from her parents until she had the offer in hand.

Keen, then a constable, and her platoon after the amalgamation of regional police services. (Submitted)

"I had some reservations because I didn't know how I was going to tell my parents," Keen said. When she did, it "was a shocker to them."

In their eyes, and in the eyes of many marginalized groups from countries where policing is corrupt, it wasn't an honourable profession.

"It took them many years to really embrace that fact of myself," Keen said.

Since then, her cousins have become police officers and her parents have even spoken to the parents of another potential recruit about the job.

Canada’s first Filipina police officer reflects on 29 years of law enforcement

3 months ago
1:55
Ottawa police Sgt. Maria Keen became the first Filipina police officer in Canada 29 years ago. She spoke to CBC News about why diversity in the police service is important — and why she’s headed back out on patrol before retiring. 1:55

'There was no one who looked like me'

"It didn't really strike me until I actually got on the job and looked around me and there was no one who looked like me. And on top of that, I was young, too," Keen said. "I was 21 turning 22." The other officers in her platoon were much older.

But the diversity question that the service has continued to struggle to answer is how much of the workforce needs to reflect the greater community, and whether that will encourage greater trust of police within those communities.

Keen, seen here on patrol, is getting ready to end her policing career. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Over her career, Keen spent more than a decade working as a community police officer and as a school resource officer, attempting to build bridges with communities. While that was rewarding work, she said it was her time in recruitment that gave her a tangible way to contribute to the future of the service by hiring officers who were capable, compassionate and came from the broader community — officers who looked like her.

"We need the police to represent the community," Keen said. "Ottawa is becoming more and more diverse. One in three people in Ottawa speaks a language outside of French and English. So it's really, really important."

Keen mentored a Filipina recruit who became the force's second female officer from that background, and Keen's Twitter account has become a beacon for potential recruits of colour. 

The force's continuing efforts toward diversity come at a time when public trust is exceedingly fragile, and when the service itself has halted hiring in preparation for a budget that may be frozen in direct response to calls from the public to change policing in Ottawa.

For Keen, in the spirit of building bridges and reconciling her parents' concerns about the job all those years ago, there has to be a willingness by the community to see diversity as an effort toward that goal.

Keen attends the Philippines Independence Day celebration every June. (Submitted)

"Give us a chance, look beyond the uniform, look at who we are and where we come from outside of this uniform. We're just like you and we are still people. Yes, we have a job to do. Yes, we know we're law enforcers. But at the end of the day, I'm still that Filipino girl that goes home to their parents and has a Filipino meal. And just because you wear the uniform doesn't change that."

Keen is back on patrol now, for what is likely her last year on the job.

"It's full circle, right? This is where I started. This is where I wanted to finish. The best part of it is seeing all the people I hired in the last two years on the road in uniform, in action. It makes me smile," she said. "Actually, it gives me comfort."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shaamini Yogaretnam

CBC Ottawa reporter

Shaamini Yogaretnam is CBC Ottawa's justice, crime and police reporter. She has spent nearly a decade covering crime in the nation's capital. You can reach her at shaamini.yogaretnam@cbc.ca or 613-220-2486.

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