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Fighting crime in a bygone time in British Columbia

Eric Hallam is one the last surviving officers of the B.C. Provincial Police.

Shannon Storey/Shannon Storey for The Globe and Mai

Eric Hallam is one of the last surviving members of the force that policed this province for nearly a century.

The remaining veterans of the British Columbia Provincial Police muster on the second Tuesday of every month for lunch at a Greek restaurant in Langley.

"The widows come now, too, because there are so few of us," Mr. Hallam said. "Many aren't that mobile any more."

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Once, the police force patrolled mountain highways in radio-operated squad cars. It even boasted a navy of vessels to scout smuggler's coves.

The BCPP was disbanded in 1950 when the RCMP took over policing in much of the province. Ever since, voices are raised every few years to suggest the Mounties be replaced by a revived provincial police force.

Mr. Hallam is one who does not think the RCMP will leave any time soon.

"It'll be too expensive," said the 85-year-old who now lives in Chilliwack. "Besides, you'd only be changing the uniform of the members who are here now. Where are we going to find 6,000 men to police this province? And where are the Mounties going to put 6,000 if they have to take them out of here?"

A constabulary was formed at Fort Langley with the founding of the colony of British Columbia in 1858. The authorities were eager to police a flood of pistol-packing gold prospectors from California.

Over the years, the provincial police did battle with naked Doukhobors and chased rum-runners through coastal waters. Forbes Cruickshank, an inspector with the BCPP, became famous for solving the mystery of the Beryl G, a vessel found abandoned with her decks specked by bloodstains. The owner and his son were missing. With a hat and a camera as clues, the inspector tracked down Harry Sowash and Owen (Cannonball) Baker, who were hanged for murder.

It could be dangerous work. John Ussher, a constable, was shot to death in 1879 while pursuing the notorious McLean brothers, outlaw horse thieves.

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Seven years ago, Mr. Hallam, the long-time president of the BCPP veterans' association, came to Victoria for the official unveiling of The Bastion, a monument on the grounds of the Legislature honouring officers killed on duty. Among those named are 14 members of the BCPP.

Few in attendance knew Mr. Hallam came within a knife tip of being No. 15.

Born in Armstrong, he moved with his family to the Fraser Valley, where his parents ran a dairy farm. He did not care for milking cows with manure-encrusted tails, so he ran away from home on his 17th birthday to enlist with the Royal Canadian Navy as a boy seaman.

He served on North Atlantic convoys and fished the bodies of allied soldiers from the English Channel after D-Day. He returned to Canada after the war and joined the provincial police at age 21. He was posted to Prince Rupert, Ocean Falls and Bella Bella, and sent to the Kootenays at a time when the Sons of Freedom sect of Doukhobors were burning buildings in protest.

"I remember sitting up at nights in schools to prevent them from getting blown up," he said.

In 1950, just a few weeks before the provincials were to be disbanded, he was ordered to join two other constables and a doctor in taking into custody Stanley Thacker, a 32-year-old schizophrenic.

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As they arrived at his house, Mr. Thacker jumped into a car and fled. The police boxed in his car on a side road. As they tried to arrest him, the man lunged at the officers wielding what Mr. Hallam remembers as "a homemade six-inch knife made from a No. 10 bastard file."

"I got five holes in me that night," he said.

The constable was stabbed in the back and the left arm, the shiv puncturing a lung and the outer edge of his heart. One headline in a U.S. newspaper the next day read: Police constable fighting for life.

"I should have died," he said.

He survived, as did Mr. Thacker, who recovered after being shot in the abdomen by the officer.

When the 520-man provincial force was disbanded 10 weeks later, Mr. Hallam was one of the few not to join the RCMP, as the force wanted him to sign a waiver clearing it of future responsibility for lung or heart troubles. Instead, he joined the New Westminster police force, retiring as acting chief constable of the West Vancouver police.

After taking over policing in the province, the RCMP took a stash a weapons – including 49 revolvers, 15 automatics and four Great War-era machine-guns – and dumped them at sea. The Mounties also destroyed B.C. Provincial Police badges and other insignia.

"It was a good organization," he said. "I don't think there was anything wrong with it at all."

It has fallen to Mr. Hallam and his diminishing band of veterans to keep alive the memory of a force that policed the province for 92 years, from the gold-rush days to when a young constable nearly lost his life to a knife-wielding man.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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