By Frédéric Serre
Last November 15, I stood with about 400 people inside the beautiful grand ballroom of the majestic Marriot Château Champlain Hotel in downtown Montreal as members of the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada Black Watch pipe band led a congregation of 43 police officers and five civilians into the hall, where the 20th presentation of the Quebec Police Awards gala was set to begin, featuring lots of fanfare and pageantry, as special police ceremonies have long been known for.
Among those honoured at this glamorous event, 11 were women. At first glance, it might appear from the honoree breakdown that women still have a long way to go before reaching complete equality among the ranks of our country’s law enforcement family. And yet, the number — even symbolically — reveals the reality of law enforcement in Canada.
But it’s also a reality that is slowly changing.
According to Statistics Canada, there were 69,027 police officers in Canada on May 15, 2017, 168 more than the previous year. This represents a rate of police strength of 188 officers per 100,000 people and a decline of one percent from the previous year. It also marks the sixth consecutive year of decline in the rate of police strength.
During the same time, women accounted for 21 percent of all sworn officers. Women continued to be increasingly represented in the higher ranks of police services. They represented 15 percent of senior officers in 2017 — the highest proportion ever recorded — compared with seven percent in 2007 and less than one percent in 1986.
While we wait for the 2018 statistics to come in, it would be safe to say that things are looking up for Canadian female police officers across the country.
And where does the RCMP fit in all of this?
Today, approximately one fifth of the RCMP’s police officers (also known as regular members) are women, with more and more women in the senior ranks (inspector and above). As of April 2016, the RCMP had 18,462 members, of which 3,979 were women. Among the 3,882 civilian employees within the force, 2,017 were women.
Over the years, the RCMP has seen clear and consistent increases in the representation of women at various levels of promotion. Though equity has not yet been fully achieved, for the most part, women are achieving rank at the commissioned officer levels in about the expected proportions compared to men. To illustrate, as of February 2017, the percentage of female Commanding Officers increased from 12.5% (2011) to 31%; the percentage of female Criminal Operations Officers increased from 14% (2011) to 20%, and the percentage of successful female applicants in the Officer Candidate Program (OCP) increased from 24% (2011-12 cycle) to 62% in the 2016-17 cycle.
It is quite clear that women are making a difference in Canadian policing. They continue to do excellent police work across Canada, and in this issue of Action, our section on the 19th and 20th annual Quebec Police Awards galas is an example of this. I invite readers to check out the stories behind the winners — tales of courage and selfless commitment to serve and protect. As our features point out, the Quebec Police Awards are unique to Canadian policing because nominees for these awards are put forward by their peers, and the gala itself is organized by four provincial police unions.
I’ve been personally involved with this gala for 20 years, and on that particular day last November, as the 43 officers entered the ballroom, I got the chance to take a photo of one particular constable. While she stood out because of the outstanding specifics of her story, what also caught my eye as I took her photo was the look in her eyes.
It’s one of my favourite photos of that day, because the look in her eyes seem to tell a common story — a look that seemed to say: “Hey, lots of cops do amazing work every day, they work in the shadows, and I’m no more special than anyone else, but, hey, thanks for the recognition anyway, it does make a difference.”
Emmanuelle Chamberland was that young constable. She’s with the MRC des Collines-de-l’Outaouais Public Security Service, which covers the small Quebec town of Chelsea, located about 10 kilometres north of Ottawa.
Chamberland was being honoured at the gala because she saved the lives of two people in one day, in two separate incidents. And in both cases, she saved both persons from drowning. It all happened on July 25, 2016 — in the morning, when an elderly woman suffering from Azheimers fell into a river.
Several hours later, a man called police to say that he was going to commit suicide by jumping into Lake Meech. Chamberland and her two partners responded. Chamberland jumped into the water, needing 20 minutes to reach the unconscious victim and dragging him back to shore, where her colleagues took over. Officers searched the man’s backpack and discovered that it was loaded with a large, heavy rock. The man was taken to hospital, where he was later given a clean bill of health.
During the traditional pre-gala cocktail at the hotel, one of Chamberland’s colleagues joked with me that Chamberland could have easily proven her worth by just saving one drowning victim that day, but no, “she had to outdo herself and save two!”
Chamberland, and others featured in this issue of Action are proof of everything that is right about Canadian women in law enforcement right now, and how — like Chamberland — they are going the extra mile to leave their mark.