Women with Guns
This is the first entry in a collection of stories of strong women I’ve been gathering over the past few years. I’ve been very fortunate to know many strong and fearless women and I need to share their stories…starting with the strongest woman I know – my mom.
Carmel grew up in a small town east of Sydney, Nova Scotia called Dominion, a small coal-mining town on the coast of the Atlantic. The town itself is small, conservative, and everyone knows everyone else.
Carm’s mother was a single mother, working as an artist, with four children. Needless to say, they weren’t rich. Growing up, Carm was aware of her family’s struggles – she knew her mom didn’t have enough to provide for everyone and that as a single-parent family, faced criticism (at best) and scrutiny from her community. But that was precisely what motivated Carm to work toward a better life. She was determined not to have the same struggles she grew up with; she would get a well-paying job that she loved and make a difference in the world.
But when it came time to graduate high school and start making an impact on her world, Carm was faced with the brutal reality of being a woman in rural Cape Breton in the 1970s. She knew what she wanted to do – she wanted to help people going through difficult times – she wanted to work in a funeral home – helping families grieve and get through some of their darkest moments in life. But in the 70s, women weren’t allowed to be in the funeral home and Carm was met with many closed doors…she found out very quickly that making her impact would be difficult.
But Carm was unfazed. She refused to give up and go work at a call center or do some other administrative job that all women in her small town were expected to do. She knew she wanted to help people and work directly with people going through difficult times – she wanted to impact their lives and the world. Flipping through a career book with her guidance counselor one day, she spotted something she knew would make an impact: the Atlantic Police Academy.
Women have been involved in law enforcement since the early 1900s; up until the 70s, they were known as “police matrons” – they weren’t allowed to wear pants, carry guns or make money – oh! and they had to carry a purse. It wasn’t until 1970, when the “the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada recommended that ‘enlistment in the RCMP be open to women’ that change started to happen; and it wasn’t until 1974 they accepted the first women into RCMP training (1). That year, Carm was accepted into the Atlantic Police Academy – one of eight women accepted into the program that year.
Before leaving for the Academy, Carm met up with another woman who was accepted into the program from Cape Breton: a red-haired, freckled woman with lots of heart. Upon meeting, my mom said, “you look just like Vicky Lawrence on the Carol Brunnette Show.” Though they didn’t know it at the time, this woman, Elizabeth Chisholm, would become Carm’s best friend – and still is to this day.
Her time at the police academy was short; back then, it took 11 months to become a cop. And for women, in the 70s, in an industry ruled by men, it was an 11-month battle. It was always the hope of a cadet to go back to their hometown to do their on-the-job training. However, being from a small, conservative town in rural Cape Breton, she once again faced criticism and scrutiny – her hometown police force told her that she could do her training there, but they wouldn’t pay her and she wouldn’t be a full-duty police officer.
Carm faced one obstacle after another, but she knew what she wanted and kept moving forward. Fortunately, she had people in her corner – people who knew the way the world was moving and weren’t scared to be on the cusp of social change. The director of the Police Academy, W. J. R. MacDonald (“Big Daddy”) was one of these people and when he found out Carm’s hometown wouldn’t pay her for her training, he took matters into his own hands.
Big Daddy wasn’t about to let one of his cadets go to a town that wouldn’t pay her. He knew in order to make a real impact, these female cadets would have to have the same opportunities as men. Big Daddy found Carm a paid training position in Saint John, New Brunswick – a LONG way from home for Carm, who had never left Cape Breton before the Academy. He told her he’d been in contact with an old RCMP colleague, who was taking over the position of Chief of Police in Saint John, Eric Ferguson. Big Daddy and Chief Ferguson were two of the biggest driving forces behind getting women into law enforcement in Atlantic Canada. Finally, Carm had her chance to make her impact and help people in difficult situations.
After completing her police training, Carm graduated from the Atlantic Police Academy on December 13th, 1974 and was hired on the SJPF as a full duty Police Officer soon after. Her, along with three other women, were the first women in Saint John to be full duty Police Officers, wearing pants, making money, and carrying guns – NOT purses.
She had broken the barrier to get on the force, but her struggle to be accepted as a police officer was only just beginning…
PS…Carm retired after 34 years of service and now works in a funeral home – assisting grieving families and friends through the funeral process.
(1) THREE DECADES OF WOMEN IN POLICING. A LITERATURE REVIEW, LeBeuf, Marcel-Eugène, 1996 [http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/JS66-25-1996E.pdf]