Despite the fact that women make up more half of Canada’s population, only 20 per cent of Canadian police officers are female. That’s why on Thursday, November 19 the UFV alumni association hosted a panel discussion event covering the topic of women in policing.
The event was hosted by two UFV faculty members of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice: Irwin Cohen, the school’s RCMP research chair, and Amy Prevost, the current director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The visiting panelist experts were made up of UFV alumni, and current and veteran RCMP female employees: Stephanie Ashton, Jane Hall, Jennifer Schiffner, Bonnie Reilly Schmidt, and Margaret Shorter. Each of them shared her personal and professional experiences as a woman within the RCMP community.
One of the main reasons behind hosting the event was to provide a space for students and prospective law enforcement officers to learn about the adventures, diversity, and innovations of policing. Cohen says it’s important to “have women come out and speak about the positive aspects of being a police officer, so that people who are thinking about maybe becoming an officer do not have a [false] impression about what it would be like to be a police officer, especially if you’re a female.”
Many of these women joined the RCMP police force when it was not yet socially and culturally acceptable. Jane Hall, a retired RCMP officer, joined the police force within a few years of the 1967 Royal Commission of the Status of Women, which recommended steps to ensure equal opportunities in Canada were available to both men and women.
“It was such an adventure, such an amazing opportunity,” Hall said. “Who wouldn’t want to try and do this, especially [since it was] a male occupation at that time?”
Having women in the RCMP created many waves within the policing communities and in the 1970s society.
“It turned power on its head,” said Hall, “because at that time women were second class [and] were not in a position of authority.”
Despite the physical barriers that all the panelists have experienced due to their gender as women, each of them looked beyond their limitations and pursued what was close to their hearts.
“I’m always looking for a way to make change and make things better,” explained Schiffner. “It isn’t about being the biggest, toughest guy; it’s about thinking smart, using tactics, [and] using your voice.” As a corporal in one of Canada’s largest RCMP detachments, Schiffner teaches youth about breaking down perceptions about gender roles within the police force.
Like men, women sought out careers in the RCMP force for new opportunities and diverse experiences. Despite being a daughter of a Mountie and trying to create a new identity through studying the sciences, separate from her father’s occupation as an RCMP officer, Margaret Shorter eventually joined the RCMP force for her own personal and professional growth. It gave her an opportunity to discover where she could make a difference and “feel that it was meaningful.”
This was also true for Stephanie Ashton, who originally started off as a journalist in the Okanagan and found herself working closely with the RCMP community.
“I realized what they were doing looked like a lot more fun than what I was doing,” said Ashton. As one of her many positions within the organization, Ashton established a domestic violence unit at the Richmond RCMP.
“It was one of the first of its kind in the province,” said Ashton. “We were definitely behind the times, because other provinces were already doing what we were trying to do.”
While working in recruitment, she was asked by mainstream media outlets about what it was like for her as a woman to work in the RCMP, which was mainly dominated by men.
“There are people that are harassed in every job environment,” Ashton said. “It doesn’t matter where you work, any large organization has issues with harassment and problems in the workplace.”
Scmidt advised prospective RCMP recruits who are women to appreciate the value of understanding history.
“The history tells you about what you can expect today,” she said. “Know your human rights and know your workplace rights.”
Shorter added that it is crucial that the prospective recruits find the balance between managing their personal life and their work life.
“Know yourself; be perceptive of what you can really do,” said Shorter. “Be prepared to be outside your comfort zone every day — think of it as an opportunity to grow.”
Cohen noted Thursday’s panel discussion is the beginning of many more dialogues about gender dynamics within the RCMP organization.
“People will still have more of this conversation around, not only on incredibly important contributions that women make to policing,” Cohen said, “but that you don’t have to expect that if you join policing for women that it’s a unique challenge or something different, but that you can have incredibly diverse and deep experiences.”