Manitoba History: Manitoba’s Finest
by Jack Templeman
It may come as a surprise to many that Manitoba once had a provincial police force. Indeed, at one time or another every province had one, but only Ontario and Quebec still retain them. The RCMP has taken over provincial duties in all other provinces.
Formed in 1870 as the “Mounted Constabulary Force,” the Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) served Manitoba for sixty-one years, ending in 1932 with its absorption by the RCMP. Only the British Columbia Provincial Police were organized earlier (1858). The first “Chief of Police for Manitoba” was Frank Villiers, who had served as a quartermaster with the 1870 Wolseley Expedition. He established a force of twenty-four men to police the province and serve the new courts in the handling and escort of prisoners. These first policemen were paid $30 a month for Sergeants, $25 for Corporals, and $20 for “Troopers.” An old post office building on Main Street, not far from Upper Fort Garry, was fitted up as a police station and courthouse with a log house to the rear transformed into a jail. Initially, constables were deployed in Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Pointe de Chiene (Oak Point), St. Norbert, and Lower Fort Garry but as Winnipeg grew larger, the men were stationed almost exclusively there. Villiers soon came under attack by the Attorney-General of Manitoba, being accused of “irregularities and defalcations connected with his discharge of the duties of his office.” He was dismissed in 1872.
The second Chief was Louis de Plainval who had served as a Deputy to Villiers. de Plainval tried to establish a strong, respected force. He wrote to the police chiefs in Toronto and Montreal regarding uniforms but there is no indication he was ever successful in getting them. (An 1883 photograph shows a group of provincial policemen at Rat Portage — now Kenora — in civilian clothing, wearing identifying badges on their jackets.) Financial problems faced by the provincial government forced it to repeatedly reduce the MPP’s budget. In August 1872, the force was reduced to 16 men although the salary for all ranks was raised $5 per month. The monthly payroll was $430. Seven months later, the force was reduced to seven men. de Plainval resigned in protest. The MPP ceased to be a mounted force in April 1873 when it was reported that their horses had been sold off. The entire force was now stationed within twenty miles of Winnipeg, with postings at Selkirk, Kildonan, and St. Norbert. There was no attempt by the province to provide general police protection outside this area and most communities had to rely on volunteers.
The third Chief was 22-year-old Richard Power who, like de Plainval, was moved up from the Deputy Chief position. The local papers described him as “a fine looking man, magnificently proportioned, every inch a soldier with the courage that nothing could daunt” and a “terror to evil doers.” His trademark was a Colt 45 slung around his waist with enough cartridges to take on a small army. Like his predecessor, Power continued to face government cuts so that by February 1874 he was the entire force. In part, the force’s downsizing was brought about by the establishment of the Winnipeg Police Force, which assumed responsibility for maintaining law and order in the growing city of Winnipeg under Chief John S. Ingram. The Winnipeg force took over the old jail and courthouse and Chief Power moved into new facilities on Main Street near William Avenue. Many of his former duties had been assumed by the Winnipeg force, so Power was given the jobs of License Inspector, Gunpowder Inspector, Constable of the County of Selkirk, and Jailor for the Province of Manitoba. In October 1875, he was permitted to hire an assistant, and a few additional men in subsequent years.
During his career as Chief Constable, Power escaped death twice: in September 1874, when he was shot at while making an arrest in Scratching River (Morris), and again in 1879 when the gun belonging to a man he was trying to arrest at Kildonan misfired. In 1880, his luck ran out and Chief Power became the first provincial police officer killed in the line of duty. While he was returning an escaped prisoner from St. Boniface, the man jumped on the gunwale of the boat and capsized it, throwing them into the Red River. Both men drowned. Power’s body lay in state at the Provincial Court House and his funeral was one of the largest that Winnipeggers had ever seen. The procession wound through the streets of Winnipeg and after services were held, he was interred in St. Charles Cemetery next to his father, Manitoba’s first official jailor.
The fourth Chief was Charles Constantine who served from 1880 to 1885 when he left to join the 91st Winnipeg Light Infantry in putting down the Northwest Rebellion. He later became an Inspector with the NWMP and would be one of its most famous officers. Little is known of the next two Chiefs, R. Latouche Tupper and J. M. Clark, who each served short terms.
E. J. Elliott, the seventh and longest serving Chief, took over in 1895 and remained in the post until 1920. Chief Elliot was mainly responsible for town constables who were also sworn “In and For the Province of Manitoba.” These men were commonly known as “fee constables” because they were only paid by the province when actually engaged in work for the province outside of their towns. This was usually on escort duty for $2 a day. In addition to the “fee constables,” Chief Elliott apparently was responsible for a border patrol between 1906 and 1910. A border patrol was again mentioned in 1917 when the services of the NWMP were withdrawn for war service and the Prairie Provinces took up the duties of watching for enemy aliens crossing from the United Sates.
The coming of Prohibition and the problems it posed for policing brought about the final reorganization of the MPP into a uniformed, well trained, and respected group of men. A new Provincial Police Act came into force and in February 1920, Colonel J. G. Rattray became the eighth Chief of Police. He retained his military title and at the same time became the “Commissioner of Provincial Police” according to the Act. The MPP had forty-four members. Constables pay began at $1,260 and worked up to $1,440 per year. Sergeants earned from $1,500 to $1,620 while Inspectors received $1,920 to $2,400. The Commissioner received $4,000 and a clothing allowance. The force increased to six-eight members in 1922 but suffered some problems and this, together with government cutbacks in 1923, saw it reduced considerably for several years. In the late 1920s, the MPP was built back up and reached a strength of eighty-five members and staff by the early 1930s.
Life as an MPP officer was tough. They were scattered about the province in one- and two-man detachments, often on call 24 hours a day. Communication with colleagues in other communities was difficult in a day before police radios and telephones. Married officers found that their wives were routinely called upon to help with police duties or serve as matrons. Their main responsibilities related to the illicit liquor trade, traffic patrol for the ever-growing number of motor vehicles, and protection of the rural communities from criminals who crossed over from the United Sates to rob banks in the southern towns. Nine months after the force was reinvigorated in 1920, two of its members were killed and a third wounded while checking for breaches of the Manitoba Temperance Act at a hotel in St. Boniface. Two years later, there was a public outcry when the MPP received a tip about a planned bank robbery near Brandon but failed to act in time to prevent it, leading the local citizens to take up arms and shoot it out with the bandits. The incident brought discredit to the MPP, and a subsequent investigation relieved Colonel Rattray, an Inspector, and a Sergeant of their duties. For two months in the autumn of 1922, the MPP was without a Commissioner but George Smith, an Inspector of Detectives with the Winnipeg Police Force, filled in.
Perhaps the most famous MPP case was the arrest of Earle “The Strangler” Nelson in 1927. Nelson was wanted in Winnipeg for the murders of a young girl and a woman as well as over twenty other murders in the United States. MPP officers arrested him walking within sight of the border near Killarney. He escaped custody but was soon re-captured then brought to Winnipeg on a special train that had gone out to join the search. Nelson was turned over to the city police and as a result of their investigation was convicted and hanged. Although the Winnipeg Police Force usually receives credit for putting an end to the Strangler, he would have made it safely across the border to the United Sates if not for the MPP.
The ninth and final Chief was Colonel H. J. Martin who also used his military rank. He remained at the head of the MPP until it was absorbed by the RCMP and he carried on his career in that force. In all, seventy-four members transferred to the RCMP. They remained in the province and, in most cases, the same detachment. The Manitoba government agreed to pay $100,000 per year in return for the federal government maintaining a force of 125 RCMP officers in the province. This kept up until 1937 when the contract went up to $150,000 and the strength went up to 150 members. Along with the takeover of most MPP personnel, the federal government agreed to purchase all the stores and equipment of the MPP for the sum of $20,000. The long list of items included everything in the detachments as well as its offices in the Law Courts Building. Many detachments listed homemade desks and chairs indicating that budget restraints are not new to police departments. There were also three Thompson submachine guns, ten rifles, seventy-six revolvers, and a quantity of handcuffs, billies and Sam Browne belts. The twenty-six patrol cars in use were mostly Fords but there were also three Whippets, an Essex, a Nash, a Hupmobile, a Dodge, and a Chevrolet. The thirteen motorcycles in use were Hendersons. The northern detachments turned over three railway track cars as well as four canoes.
Despite its long service for the province, few MPP records remain today, most having been lost or destroyed over the years. All that remains are a few photographs in private and public collections, old newspaper clippings, some police badges, and the memories of a few living members. These pioneer policemen deserve better recognition for their dedication and service to the communities in which they served — the gallant and all but forgotten MPP deserves a better fate.
Page revised: 2 June 2012Back to top of page