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First female constables take centre stage

A play about female police officers being treated badly on the force could be set in, well, let's face it, 2012. But go back a century, and, wow – what a story, and it can be told with the comfort of distance, allowing for some laughs, and hey, even a few musical numbers.

Vancouver was a pioneer on this front: It was 100 years ago that the force hired Lurancy Harris and Minnie Miller, making them Canada's first female police officers (just edging out Edmonton, according to most sources, which also made its first female hire in 1912).

When playwright Sally Stubbs (Herr Beckmann's People) was casting about for her next project in early spring of 2010, she came across a tiny mention of the women and was intrigued. She called the Vancouver Police Museum for more information, and that's when she became aware of the dates; the 100th anniversary was coming up.

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"I thought, 'Wow, this is amazing; the timing is incredible,'" Ms. Stubbs said during an interview this week in Vancouver, where she lives. "I got absolutely ecstatic, running around going, 'Okay this is it!' What you do when you find the right thing."

The Firehall Arts Centre, which shares a wall with the police museum in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the neighbourhood where these constables would have worked, seemed a natural home for the potential project, so Ms. Stubbs contacted artistic producer Donna Spencer.

"I went, 'Oh my gosh. … And nobody knows about it. And it's our neighbourhood,'" Ms. Spencer says. "There are so many stories in Vancouver that aren't told on stage that we should be telling on stage."

Kid Gloves, a fictionalized account of the lives of Ms. Harris and Ms. Miller, has its world premiere at the Firehall on Wednesday (previews begin on Saturday), directed by Ms. Spencer.

Researching this project was frustrating. Ms. Stubbs found very little about the constables, and what she did dig up was often contradictory: Ms. Harris came from the East Coast according to one source, and from the United States according to another. Minnie's last name was spelled both Miller and Millar.

"I thought … that there would be way more information on them than there is, and so initially I was kind of devastated about that," Ms. Stubbs says. "And then I thought, 'Oh well; I guess I can kind of go to town here,' … and that just kind of opened the doors."

A playwright rather than a historian, Ms. Stubbs got to work imagining who these women might have been, and what they might have faced.

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In the play, the constables, played by Colleen Wheeler and Dawn Petten, are sworn in, shown around the Downtown Eastside where bawdy houses were thriving, and put to work trying to save young women from life on the street.

Ms. Stubbs drew deeply from historical context: The women were brought onto the force as a result of lobbying by the Central Mission Rescue and Protective Society, which was concerned about the increasing involvement of women in crime in the rough, booming port city – both as victims and perpetrators.

The female officers would have made regular patrols of pool halls, cabarets and dances, looking for "the way-ward young women in the city," as a letter from the society called them. Other duties included acting as matrons in the jail, and escorting female victims and suspects to court appearances.

The women would have required the permission of their male guardian – husband, father, godfather – to join the force at a time before women had the vote. The female constables did not wear uniforms, they could not carry a weapon. Research suggests they carried their badge in their purse.

"Minnie Miller apparently was the first woman to actually bust a man for what boils down to obscene behaviour in public," Ms. Stubbs says of a 1926 beach arrest. "And I just have this wonderful image of this woman in her long skirt with her little handbag and her gloves, pulling out her [badge]."

Next door at the Vancouver Police Museum, the exhibit 100 Years of Women in Policing includes a multimedia presentation that takes visitors through the history of women on the force as Helen Reddy's I Am Woman plays on a loop.

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"The two new lady constables … have now begun their duties, and today will be sworn in," reads a short news item from the period. "The duties of the ladies, who, by the way, are the first of their sex to act as constables in Canada, will be devoted towards the work of reclamation and administration in connection with the female morality question."

Kid Gloves may be set a century ago, but its resonance today cannot be denied. As Ms. Stubbs was writing, the Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry was established; later, grave allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment arose at the RCMP.

"Some of the same things are still going on, and some things are incredibly different," Ms. Stubbs says. "We've come a long, long way and [yet] you can still read about similar kinds of things happening."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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