British Columbia Provincial Police

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Inspection of the BCPP during the 1939 royal visit

The British Columbia Provincial Police (BCPP) was the policing body for the Canadian province of British Columbia until 1950. These forces pre-dated Canadian confederation, preceding the North West Mounted Police by fifteen years and the Ontario Provincial Police by seventeen years.[1] The force is usually dated from the appointment of Chartres Brew in 1858 with the formation of the Colony of British Columbia and associated appointments. While Chartres Brew often signed his correspondence as either Chief Constable of the colony and Chief Inspector of Police for the new mainland colony in 1858, he was never in fact given this position; he was technically the Chief Gold Commissioner and later a Stipendary Magistrate.[2] Douglas and the Colonial office had rejected forming a standing police force due to budgetary concerns; however, Douglas appointed Brew Gold Commissioner to strengthen the magisterial force of the new colony.[3]“There was no way for Brew to realize the importance of his dual appointment.”[4] As Gold Commissioner, Brew was armed with magisterial powers. Each magistrate was allowed to appoint six constables, constables were to act as clerks, recorders, collectors, and postmasters, and the result was they became integrated into the colonial administration.[5] "Since the constabulary remained the most consistent government presence in the most isolated regions, some constables continued to have several titles and responsibilities, including assessor and tax collector, registrar of births, deaths and marriages, returning officer, government agent and notary public. They were also expected to collect license [sic] fees, make weather reports, gather vital statistics, check cattle brands, test new drivers; in other words, perform any task the provincial government asked of them. In the process, Provincials became well-known members of the community, on a first-name basis with many residents."[6] Brew had served with Royal Irish Constabulary in County Cork, Ireland, before being sent to British Columbia to assist in stabilizing the situation there, beset as it was by well-armed Americans in the gold fields and the accompanying risk of annexation.[7]


The British Columbia Provincial Police Force was established in 1858. Policing in the Colony of British Columbia was the responsibility of the Chief Inspector of Police (1858-1863) or Superintendent of Police (1863-1871) and in the Colony of Vancouver Island by the Commissioner of Police (1858-1866). It went through various name changes. In 1871 they were called the British Columbia Constabulary. In 1871, when the Colony of British Columbia joined confederation as a province of the Dominion of Canada, the police came under the authority of the Attorney-General. The reporting structure required the Superintendent of Police to report to the Attorney-General. The constables were under the direction of the government agent of the district who reported to the Superintendent. The mandate of the British Columbia Constabulary was to maintain peace and order and to enforce the laws of the province under the authority of An Act respecting Police Constables (SBC 1880, c. 22, revised SBC 1888, c. 96). In 1895, under the new Provincial Police Act (SBC 1895, c. 45) the name was changed to the British Columbia Provincial Police Force. The duties of the force included patrolling the land, waterways, and coastline, enforcing laws, maintaining peace, policing strikes, controlling smuggling, and generally enforcing provincial statutes. Special constables were also deployed as required. In 1946, the force policed all rural areas and unincorporated settlements as well as forty municipalities throughout the province. The British Columbia Provincial Police Force ceased to exist in 1950, when provincial policing was taken over by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.[8]

Photo at left of BCPP officer with revolver is of Jack Henry.

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BCPP officer

In the Colony of Vancouver Island a police force of one sort or another had operated since the formation of the Island Colony in 1849. A precursor to this force, the Victoria Voltigeurs, was composed of West Indians, Metis, and other so called 'mixed bloods'. They were recruited by Governor James Douglas,[9] himself a mulatto from Guyana, and wore colourful outfits which to modern eyes were more like a military-dress parade uniform than modern police clothing. In 1854 Thomas Hall was appointed as the first paid constable on Vancouver Island, the Voltigeurs were given 20 acres of land in exchange for service.[10] It should be noted that records indicate Hall was also paid £7-5-10 for fourteen cords of wood in 1856 leading to questions about how much policing he was actually doing.[11] June 1, 1858 Agustus Pemberton was appointed Stipendiary for Victoria and commissioner of Police in that city.[12] Sometime before 1863 Captain William Hayes Franklyn was appointed Magistrate in Nanaimo.[13] Franklyn was assisted by Charles S. Nicol Justice of the Peace for Nanaimo. Nicol had been the Sheriff of British Columbia between 1859-1860 and moved to Nanaimo to be the manager of the Vancouver Coal Company. Nicol was appointed JP in 1864.[14]

The Police and Prisons Dept. of the Colony of Vancouver Island was established when a Commissioner of Police, Augustus F. Pemberton, was appointed in 1858. Prior to that, from 1849 to 1853, the affairs of the Colony of Vancouver Island were also the affairs of the Hudson's Bay Company and were administered by the chief factor (James Douglas) and employees of the company. In 1853, James Douglas, Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, commissioned four citizens to serve as magistrates and justices of the peace for the three districts of the colony that comprised the area immediately west of Victoria. He then established a Supreme Court of Civil Justice for the colony. In 1858, due to the gold rush on the Fraser River, the population of the Colony of Vancouver Island rose from a few hundred to many thousand, almost overnight. The newly appointed Commissioner of Police, who was also the Police Magistrate, was the representative of law and order and his immediate job was to organize a police force for the colony. He was responsible for the police stations and jails in Victoria and neighbouring communities. Pemberton was Commissioner of Police until 1866 when the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia were united. At that time, Chartres Brew, who had been appointed Chief Inspector of Police for the Colony of British Columbia in 1858, became the Superintendent of Police for the united Colony of British Columbia.[15]

In 1866, the police forces of the two colonies were amalgamated, as were the colonies, and in 1871, after B.C. joined the Confederatuion of Canada and became a province, this new body was eventually given the name of British Columbia Provincial Police.

Police were engaged from within local communities, as per Brew's original policy on this matter, based on his experience in Ireland, and until 1923 they were in plainclothes and had no uniform. By 1910, the force roster numbered 186 men. In 1923 the force was reorganized and issued frontier-style khaki uniforms with green piping, flat-brimmed stetson hats, and Sam Browne belts, and a system of semi-military ranks was established. A training school was established for the first time, and a mounted troop, while the force's administration divided the province into divisions to better serve its geographically isolated regions.

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BCPP highway patrol officer issuing a ticket.

Before its Criminal Investigation Department was established in the 1920s, the BCPP contracted private detective agencies for criminal investigations and for surveillance of suspected radicals, and was Pinkerton's biggest Canadian client. Nevertheless, over a short period of time, it became one of the most modern police agencies in the Canadian west.

The history of the force has a number of firsts:

  • the first inter-city radio telegraph system in North America. This system was fully integrated with radio-equipped cars and coastal patrol vessels. High-frequency radios were designed and built in the police workshops.
  • The force became the first law-enforcement agency to develop an air arm, crime laboratories, and sophisticated sections for fingerprints, firearms and ballistics, and identification
  • highway patrols and investigation divisions.

In the 1930s, the BCPP began to contract to municipalities for policing services, a practice now assumed by the successor force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). During World War II the BCPP organized recruitment for the armed forces.

File:BCPP specials 1935.jpg
Special constables attached to the BCPP for the 1935 waterfront strike in Vancouver.

Their general duties enforced fishing and hunting licences, providing customs and excise functions, livestock brand inspections, managed trap-line permits and dog licences, Vital Statistics and served civil court documents. They also functioned as Court prosecutors, jailers and prisoner escort and during the labour troubles in Vancouver during the Great Depression helped enforce martial law against strikers on Vancouver's troubled docks and evict protesters from the city's main post office. During that period, horses for the mounted squad were relocated from Vancouver Island to the Oakalla prison farm in Burnaby.

At the time of its dissolution on 15 August 1950, the force consisted of 520 men and their budget was $2,250,000. The 492 members who stayed on were taken on as part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's "E" Division, which has had the contract for provincial policing in BC ever since.



  1. Frederick John Hatch, The British Columbia Police, 1858-1871, (Vancouver: unpublished Master’s Thesis, UBC Special Collections, 1955), p. 1, note 1.
  2. Frederick John Hatch, The British Columbia Police, 1858-1871, (University of British Columbia unpublished masters thesis, 1955), 19 and unsigned article, "Story of the British Columbia Police Closely Parallels History of Province," "Shoulder STrap", vol. 22 (1950): 5. For James Douglas' rejection to create a formal police force see Great Britain, Colonial Office, Despatches to the Governor of British Columbia to the Secretary of State for the COlonies, GR-0326, Douglas to Lytton, Victoria, Vancouver Island, December 27, 1858. For the rejection by London see Great Briatin, Colonial Office, Despatches from the Governor of British Columbia to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, GR-0326, Douglas to Lytton, Victoria, Vancouver Island, July 2, 1859, BC Archives, for policing powers of Gold Commissioners see Douglas to Lytton, " August 30, 1858, "Papers Relative to the Affairs of British Columbia," Vol. 1, p. 30-33.
  3. Douglas to Lytton, January 20, 1859, "Dispatches, 1858-1859," No. 77, pg. 158. Also February 4, 1859, "Dispatches, 1858-1859," No. 91, p. 172 and Douglas to Lytton, December 24, 1858, "Dispatches, 1858-1859," No. 52, p. 112 and "Papers Relative to the Affairs of British Columbia," Vol. 2, p. 47.
  4. Lynne Stonier-Newman, Policing A Pioneer Province: The BC Provincial Police 1858-1950, (Madeira Park BC: Harbour Publishing, 1991), 11. Lynne Stonier-Newman remarks: “There was no way Brew could have realized the importance of his dual appointment. Because of it, British Columbia became a jurisdiction where revenue raising was combined with law enforcement for decades to come, a rare combination in the British Empire.” Throughout his career, Brew objected to the combination of revenue collection and policing. Despite the possibility for corruption, Brew managed to eject undesirable elements in the Constabulary no matter how well they were connected (see F.W. Howay, The Early History of the Fraser River Mines, (Victoria, BC: 1926), p. 84.). Also see, Brew Files, 1859, Colonial Papers, GR 1372, B-1310, BC Archives and Lynne Stonier-Newman, Policing the Pioneer Province, p. 9-27.
  5. Frederick John Hatch, The British Columbia Police, 1858-1871, (Vancouver: unpublished Master’s Thesis, UBC Special Collections, 1955), p. abstract.
  6. Lynne Stonier-Newman, Policing A Pioneer Province: The BC Provincial Police 1858-1950, (Madeira Park BC: Harbour Publishing, 1991), p. 7.
  7. Jeremy Buddenhagen, “The Evolution of Security Intelligence in British Columbia, 1828-1900” BC History, vol. 42, no. 1, 2009.
  8. BC Archives
  9. B.A. McKelvie and Willard Ireland, "The Victoria Voltigeurs," British Columbia Historical Quarterly, 20, 1956.
  10. Douglas to Barclay, March 21, 1851, in Great Britain, Papers Relative to the Affairs of British Columbia Part I, (London: Printed by George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, 1859-1862.).
  11. William Swanton Thackery, "Keeping the Peace on Vancouver Island: The Colonial Police and the Royal Navy, 1850-1866" (UVic unpublished MAsters Thesis, 1977), pg. 48 and 65.
  12. E.O.S. Scholefield and F.W. Howay, British Columbia: From Earliest Times to the Present, (Vancouver: S.J. Clarke, 1914), vol. 2, p. 654, Microforms, University of Victoria, CIHM no. 76018-76021.
  13. John Sebastian Helmcken, "Reminiscences," 1892, pg 266-269. BC Archives and "The Daily British Colonist and Victoria Chronicle" vol. 17, no. 87 (March 1867): 2.
  14. David Farr, "The Organisation of the Judicial System of the COlonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, 1849-1871," (Vancouver: UBC, 1944), 35, note 108.
  15. Police and Prisons Department of the Colony of Vancouver Island, AAAA1270, BC archives

Further reading

  • John Frederick Hatch, The British Columbia Police, 1858-1871 University of British Columbia unpublished Master's Thesis, UBC Special Collections, 1955.
  • Nancy Parker, The Capillary Level of Power: Methods and Hypothesis for the Study of Law and Society in Late Nineteenth Century Victoria British Columbia University of Victoria Special Collections, 1987.
  • Lynne Stonier-Newman, Policing a Pioneer Province: The BC Provincial Police, 1858-1950, Harbour Publishing, 1991. ISBN 1-55017-056-2
  • Tina Loo, Making Law Order and Authority in British Columbia, 1821-1871 Vancouver: University of British Columbia PhD Thesis, 1990.

External links