1411 A constabulary for women

Vancouver’s Women in Blue: Trailblazers of the Vancouver Police Department, 1904-1975
by Carolyn J. Daley, with a foreword by Bev Busson

Maple Bay: Ruddy Duck Press, 2020
$49.95 / 9781999279202

Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve


“I don’t remember the first time I drew my gun.”

That’s one way to grab the reader’s attention. It’s the opening sentence of the author’s preface to this informative and often passionate documentary about the career chosen by herself and a few – too few -other dedicated women.

Deputy Chief Constable (Retired) Carolyn Daley joined the Vancouver Police Department in 1975, part of the “first group of women to be recruited, hired, trained, paid and deployed under the new rules, guaranteeing a totally equal footing with the men.” She served for 28 years.

Equality had been a long time coming — seventy-one years after the VPD hired Matta Raymond to serve as a “matron” from 1904-1907, providing care for female prisoners, but also observing and speaking out about contributing societal factors. Even when it came, it was not quite equal.

Deputy Chief Constable (retired) Carolyn Daley

In an introductory disclaimer, Daley insists the book is “not about the individuals who were loath to welcome women officers and it is not intended to recount the times when women were treated poorly by their male counterparts or supervisors. This document stands in celebration of those who chose to serve, despite those odds.” But of course it must be both a celebration of the trailblazers and a solid contribution to BC’s herstory, as well as an important testament to the overlap of criminal justice and social justice on the streets of the province’s largest city.

The main book is divided chronologically. Chapter 1, “Feeling the Need 1886-1921,” begins at the beginning, with the formation of the Vancouver Police Department 39 days before the disastrous fire of 1886, and the subsequent years of lobbying for separate apartments for female prisoners and for a “matron” in charge. The first women constables were hired in 1912, and for some time the actual difference between a “matron” and a “policewoman” or a “constable” remained unclear. The hiring was done “with the expectation of satisfying the calls from the community for women police while, at the same time, protecting the dominant role of men in policing.”

Lurancy Harris and Minnie Millar, hired in June 1912, were the first women in Canada to be given the full powers of police constables
Matrons Say and Heathorn, of the VPD Women’s Division on foot patrol in 1939. Say would later become a constable and in charge of the women’s jail; Heathorn became a nurse in the women’s jail. Bessie Say had once worked as a matron in the Holloway prison in London when suffragettes Lydia and Sylvia Pankhurst and Carrie Nation were jailed there

Through Chapter 2, “Seeing the Challenge 1922-1949,” the city authorities faced growing pressure from such community groups as the Equal Moral Standards of the Local Council of Women, backed by 19 other organisations, calling for the establishment of a Women’s Bureau within the VPD. Chief Constables and Police Commissioners pleaded various excuses, including finances, for denying such requests. In 1928 a Women’s Division was formed. At every stage there was a tendency to reinvent the wheel, forgetting previous deployment of women, asking the same questions, “solving” the same problems all over again.

By Chapter 3 “Planning the Journey 1950-1965” policewomen, like their sisters in all walks of life, were “actively competing for footholds in the hierarchy and framework of society.” Media were taking note. On May 3, 1950 the Vancouver Province interviewed Inspector Nancy Hewett, who described their duties as cases involving women and juveniles, patrolling dance halls, cafes, street corners, rooming houses, hotels “and anywhere youngsters might be found in questionable surroundings or company.” They patrolled the night streets but were not issued firearms. Why not? Good question, it turns out. Daley notes “an evolutionary awakening in the 1960s as to what a capable female might pursue vis-a-vis employment and life in general.” There were opportunities for greater involvement in traditional police roles and salaries were raised to equal those of their male counterparts but until 1972 promotion remained based on gender discrimination: “regulations required the woman to resign in order for her husband to be promoted. There was no mention of the reverse situation even being considered.”

Policewomen Ann McKetchen, Jacquie Delmonico, and Aretha Nowlin focus on the bullseye in the newly constructed police department revolver range, 1950
Marilyn MacDonald on regular patrol duty as a fully certified police constable, 1976

Still, “things were looking up” as the story heads into “Chapter IV: Plotting the Course 1966-1974.” Marylyn A. Sims, hired in 1966, became the first woman in Vancouver to be promoted to the ranks of Corporal and Detective, with the less welcome distinction of being “the first female officer to come up against resistance to the notion of promoting women into any operational supervisory roles in the mid to late 1970s.” The pendulum swung back to reassign female officers to answer phones and escort female prisoners. They were supposed to be content with a new style of hat and a recruiting brochure advertising their equal status with policemen, “having the same authority and responsibility in the detection of crime, the apprehension of offenders and the preservation of the public peace.” Reality took a while to catch up with the advertisement. This chapter is a good read, partly for the stories told in the participants’ own words, but also for the excitement of watching events within the VPD play out in the wider context. After all, what was the Department to do with these women? How should they be dressed? Where would they carry guns? Surely not in handbags? Where in the physical plant could they be accommodated? Not insurmountable problems.

Constable Linda Malcolm, the first female constable to be assigned to the Motorcycle Traffic Unit and the VPD Drill Team

The policewomen’s plight did not go unnoticed as they acquired powerful allies and advocates. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women published its Report in 1970, and became a major topic of study and basis for action. Groups as disparate as the Children’s Aid society, the Vancouver Council of Women and the Vancouver Municipal and Regional Employees Union added insistent voices to those of journalist Simma Holt, and Alderman-Mayor-Premier Mike Harcourt calling for attention to be paid to the future for women in policing.

Carolyn Daley’s own distinguished career with the VPD began in 1975, the year discussed in the final chapter of the narrative per se: “Chapter V. Stepping Forward 1975.” One more disappointing obstacle remained: opposition from within. As long as policewomen performed “women’s roles,” the men of the force were pleased to see them, but as the women were assigned actual operational duties, resistance built. Female recruits found they were “neither welcome nor planned for.” It’s a scenario still all too familiar; on the one hand resentment that women presumed to take on “male” duties, on the other hand an over-solicitous tendency to protect women from sordid situations. Daley and her companions worked hard to make clear that they required no special treatment. Equality means just that — equality. In her Preface, Daley recounts her opposition to the suggested adaptation of the physical requirements of the Police Officers Physical Abilities Test (POPAT) for women recruits. While politely acknowledging such suggestions might have come from a desire to do the right thing, she points out the importance of each officer whether woman or small stature male possessing the physical abilities required to do the job. She emphasised the “dangers of gender-based double standards when the most important goal was to recruit and hire individuals, men and women, equally capable of meeting the physical demands of the job.”

Journalist and politician Simma Holt, 1975. Photo by John Reeves, courtesy MemorySask

Remaining chapters list Honourable Mentions (Noteworthy Firsts, Exemplary Service Awards, Women Executives), a fascinating tribute to the indefatigable Simma Holt, and a VPD Women’s Roster 1904-1975. Useful appendices, notes, bibliography and indices complete the package.

The author has done her best to include every female officer who served from 1904-1975. The out-sized volume features headshots side by side with resumés, occasional formally posed group photos and testimonials from authority figures, highlighting individual achievements within a context of camaraderie and mutual appreciation. Whenever possible, she has invited individual officers to tell their own stories, and this is the most enlightening and the most fun — car chases, bawdy houses, break-ins, drug busts — some usual police stuff, but told by policewomen looking back on their own adventures with excitement and considerable humour.

Joan Moore, the first female constable to be assigned to the VPD Mounted Squad

With indefatigable research, gutsy determination, and meticulous attention to editorial details, Carolyn Daley has assembled an historical document which brings together hitherto uncollected material. While revealing insights into a profession she has obviously loved and helped to build, she offers a tribute to the women who served; and a teaching tool that should be in school, college and public libraries, as a recommended reference for young people of all genders.

According to the VPD website, 7 of the 15 members of the current Executive team are women. There are certainly some days when — as Gilbert and Sullivan sang in 1879 — a policeman’s lot is not a happy one, when he is blamed for being mean, or not mean enough, or for just being a man in a milieu where men are assumed to be naturally mean. I have to think it must feel better to be part of a force representative of the whole of the city’s human population, to be freed from macho stereotypes, and to serve, side by side with the officers portrayed in Daley’s book, for the reasons one chose to serve in the first place.


Phyllis Parham Reeve

Phyllis Parham Reeve writes about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications. She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. She co-founded the bookstore at Page’s Resort & Marina on Gabriola Island. More details than necessary may be found on her websiteEditor’s note: Phyllis Reeve has recently reviewed books by Roy Innes, Veronica Strong-BoagIan HanomansingPJ PattenMarion McKinnon Crook, Daphne Marlatt, and Ayesha Chaudhry.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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