COLUMN: Police celebrate 60 years

Surrey RCMP are celebrating 60 years of policing the city, with a special ceremony on Sunday afternoon, including a marching parade outside the Surrey Museum in Cloverdale.

It is a fitting location, as one of the detachment’s headquarters buildings was located on that site for close to 20 years. Prior to that, the detachment was headquartered in the adjacent building which was once the municipal hall. That building is now home to the Surrey Archives.

Cloverdale was home to the RCMP for 39 of their 60 years in Surrey, and this gave rise to the saying that Cloverdale had more police per capita than any other town in the country. Of course, the police based there patrolled all of Surrey, but their coming and going made it appear that the police were everywhere in Cloverdale.

A supplement on the RCMP’s 60th anniversary of policing Surrey contained many fascinating facts. For example, Surrey was policed by its own force, which started with one constable and grew to a total of eight just before the RCMP took over on May 1, 1951.

The RCMP came to Surrey a short time after taking over provincial policing in B.C. from the B.C. Provincial Police. The council of the day put the idea of the RCMP taking over to voters, who approved it by a narrow margin, 2,973 to 2,330, in 1950.

The stories about the early days show how much policing has changed over the years.

What is often not recognized is how much Surrey has contributed to the modernization of the RCMP across Canada.

Surrey RCMP started with 18 members — Cpl. William Turner, the detachment commander, 14 other RCMP members, one ex-B.C. Provincial policeman and two Surrey Police officers who transferred to the RCMP.

The detachment now has more than 600 RCMP members, and this does not include the many civilian employees who work at the headquarters building adjacent to city hall and the various community policing offices. Surrey has for some time been the largest RCMP detachment in Canada, and it is the largest single city in Canada that is policed by the RCMP.

This has meant that Surrey RCMP have had to be leaders within the force. The system of district offices or precincts, adopted by the detachment in the 1990s, has been a big success. This is not something that the RCMP had done, primarily because most of the communities they police are smaller and more compact.

Surrey was one of the first detachments to have a female RCMP officer. Const. Greta Mortensen was part of the first group of 32 women to go through the RCMP Academy in Regina and arrived in Surrey in early 1975.

Today this seems hard to believe, but there was a heated a debate about women joining the RCMP and, as outlined in the excellent book, The Red Wall, by Jane Hall, it was tough for many of the early female officers when they joined what had been a male-only bastion.

Surrey was also on the front line when Baltej Singh Dhillon became the first Sikh with a turban and beard to join the force.

The level of debate (some of which was  nasty and racist) over this issue would be incomprehensible to many young people today.

However, as editor of the Surrey Leader at the time, I handled many letters to the editor on the topic, and can attest to how nasty some comments were.

Dhillon was very well qualified to join the force, with a criminology education, a background as a Surrey Block Watch volunteer and the ability to speak five languages. When Commissioner Norman Inkster decided that the force should lift its prohibition against members wearing turbans, he was able to join.

Today he is a sergeant in the provincial intelligence centre, with more than 20 years experience. He has been a trailblazer in many ways within the RCMP.

Today’s Surrey RCMP is a modern, progressive police force with some top-notch leaders, under the overall management of Chief Supt. Fraser McRae. It has had its share of controversies, but deals with them effectively.

It has come a long way since 1951.

Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.


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