The History of Policing in the Maritime Provinces: Themes and Prospects

By Marquis, Greg | Urban History Review, June-October 1990 | Go to article overview
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The History of Policing in the Maritime Provinces: Themes and Prospects

Marquis, Greg, Urban History Review


This article is an overview of the development of policing in the Maritime provinces and a commentary on the potential of such research to augment our understanding of the urban past. Police records, it is argued, are important social indicators which can reveal more than crime or fear of crime in a community. The article discusses police records and statistics; 19th century urban policing; early 20th century themes such as technology and Prohibition; the role of the Provincial police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the region; police and labour and police organizations. It concludes that researchers should be sensitive to both 'hard' and 'soft' police policies and pay special attention to the police service role.


L'auteur presente une vue d'ensemble du developpement de la police dans les provinces maritimes en meme temps qu'un commentaire sur l'utilite du type de recherche qu'il mene pour la comprehension de l'histoire urbaine. Selon lui, les archives de police contiennent des renseignements sur la societe qui vont bien au dela des donnees sur le crime ou sur la peur du crime. Il analyse les archives et les statistiques de la police: l'activite policiere en milieu urbain au XIXe siecle; certains themes qui surgissent au debut du XXe siecle, comme la technologie et la prohibition; le role de la police provinciale et de la Gendarmerie royale du Canada dans la region etudiee; les rapports entre la police et les syndicats, et les organisations policieres. Il conclut que les chercheurs devraient s'interesser a tous les aspects de la mission et du travail de la police, et en particulier a sa fonction de service a la population.


Law enforcement has a long history in the Maritime provinces, but academics have turned to the subject only recently. In this case the region does not lag behind-the history of policing and criminal justice in general, rich areas for social and urban historians, have not received much attention nationally. This paper, drawing on examples from the Maritime provinces, argues that an examination of police history is essential for understanding the urban, and rural, past. What follows is not a history of policing in the region but an overview and commentary on the potential scholarly contributions of such research. The majority of the population generated few records of its own, thus historians must consult the records of institutions--the courts, prisons, hospitals, churches, schools and charities--and the local press. Institutional documentation can suggest not only the concerns and attitudes of officials, but also the social relationships between different segments in society. As legally coercive institutions that meet social problems face to face, and maintain a system of records, police departments are a useful historical tool. The reconstruction of police organization and work can provide important insights into the power relations, social mores and urban culture of the past. (1)

Canadian Historigraphy

In the past two decades, a number of historians and social scientists have written on the history of Canadian policing. With the exception of R.C. MacLeod's study of the early North-West Mounted Police, few monographs display a critical spirit. Official or 'in-house' histories are generally anecdotal and lacking context, but they contain useful information. (2) Dahn Higley's recent history of the Ontario Provincial Police is a welcome improvement over most commemorative works and the vast majority of books on the RCMR Peter McGahan's Crime and Policing in Maritime Canada, largely a reproduction of nineteenth and twentieth century urban police records, shows the diversity and complexity of the evolving police function. (3) Municipal police history is a relatively new field. In the United States the urban biography approach has been popular since the publication of Roger Lane's Policing the City: Boston, 1822-1855 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967).

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The History of Policing in the Maritime Provinces: Themes and Prospects


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