The Red Deer detachment of the Alberta Provincial Police in the late 1920’s. Back row: Bill Finley, unknown, Bob Marles. Front row: Sae English and Vic Peterson (Red Deer Archives P4083)

Michael Dawe: All the western provinces had their own police force at one time

The provincial government recently announced a formal investigation is being launched into the possibility of creating an Alberta provincial police force.

Perhaps because of the very long association of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (first known as the North-West Mounted Police in 1873) with Western Canada, many people have likely forgotten, for many years, Alberta did have its own independent police force.

In fact, at one time, all four western Canadian provinces had their own provincial police services.

The oldest, and longest lasting, provincial police force was in British Columbia. It was originally established in 1858 when B.C. was still a Crown colony. After B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, the provincial police continued to operate for many decades.

The service provided policing in rural areas and 40 municipalities, in addition to its general provincial police responsibilities.

In 1950, the B.C. Provincial Police was disbanded. The province contracted the RCMP to take its place. It is rather unclear why the decision was made. Some people said it was necessary to deal with issues arising from the Cold War, such as foreign espionage.

Others claimed the provincial government thought the RCMP would be cheaper. There were several who said it was because the B.C. government was concerned about a possible unionization of the B.C. Provincial Police.

Regardless of the motivation, the dissolution of the BCPP was very unpopular, particularly in rural areas and in the municipalities that had used it for their local policing.

The second oldest provincial police force was in Manitoba. The Manitoba Provincial Police was created in 1870 when Manitoba entered Confederation.

A chronic problem for the MPP was underfunding. When the provincial government found itself in financial difficulties, it often cut back funding to the police. At one point, the government even sold off all of the MPP’s horses.

One solution adopted in Manitoba was to use so-called fee constables. These were municipal police officers who were paid by the provincial government, but only while they carried out provincial policing duties. After the onset of Prohibition, the MPP was reorganized and strengthened.

It continued to operate on that basis until 1932. With the economic hard times of the Great Depression, the provincial government decided to save money by disbanding the MPP and replacing it with a contract with the RCMP.

The Saskatchewan Provincial Police was organized in 1917 during the First World War and after the imposition of Prohibition (the general ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol).

The government was never that strongly invested in the SPP. In 1928, the government decided to return to using the RCMP for provincial policing. The SPP was disbanded.

The Alberta Provincial Police was also organized in 1917. The decision was largely based on the manpower shortages due to the war and because of the wish of the RCMP to concentrate on national security and the war effort.

Another big factor was a reluctance of the RCMP to start enforcing provincial liquor laws under Prohibition.

A decision was made to divide the APP into five geographical divisions. B Division was created for central Alberta, with Red Deer as the regional headquarters.

The APP primarily covered criminal and Prohibition cases. Red Deer kept its own municipal police. The Red Deer Police Department generally handled such things as licensing and bylaw enforcement.

The APP was kept busy enforcing Prohibition. In the mid-1920s, the Red Deer area recorded some of the highest rates in the province of illegal stills, bootlegging and other liquor infractions.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, the Alberta government, like other governments, faced severe financial difficulties.

Despite tight budget controls, the cost of the APP had risen to many times the amount the province had previously paid to the federal government for the contract with the RCMP.

In 1932, the provincial government finally decided to disband the APP. It negotiated a new contract to get provincial police services from the RCMP. Under the new arrangement, Red Deer remained a regional headquarters.

In 1943, Red Deer city council decided to disband the city police department for both manpower and budgetary reasons. A contract was then signed with the RCMP to provide municipal policing. The provincial and municipal police contracts with the RCMP have continued to this day.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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