By Keltie MacKenzie
Edmonton boasts an incredible record of women making history. From the Famous Five to the Founders of the Canadian Women’s Press Club and beyond, an incredible amount of progress in women’s rights has been made here along our river valley. One such trailblazer who needs to be mentioned is Canada’s first female police officer, Annie May Jackson.
This year, The Edmonton Police Service celebrated its 125 anniversary. Founded in 1895 by then-mayor Matthew McCauley, what was the Edmonton Police Department (renamed in 1989) consisted of two constables, a bicycle, and two whistles. However, by 1912 the force went on to include a chief constable, inspector, two captains, five detectives, six sergeants, and 52 constables. This expansion also brought with it a noticeable increase in the diversity of those who served. In 1911, constable Alex Decoteau became the first Indigenous person to be hired by a police department in Canada. The hiring of Decoteau, who went on to become an Olympic athlete and was killed serving in the First World War, preceded the hiring of Annie May Jackson by only one year as she joined the force in 1912.
On August 8th, 1913, Jackson’s picture appeared on the front cover of the London Daily Mirror as the recruitment of a woman to a police force was a noteworthy story at the time. Having beat out 47 other applicants for her position, Jackson’s role in the EPD was to monitor girls and women, and to ensure that they upheld “high morals and manners.” Edmonton had gained a reputation for being rife with prostitution, which was one of the main reasons the hiring of Jackson was seen as important. She largely worked with prostitutes in Edmonton, as many who came were new immigrants and made perfect prey for the already problematic sex-trade.
About the same time Jackson was hired, the Vancouver Police Department hired two female police officers. A few years later in 1916, at the mid-point in Jackson’s career, Emily Murphy of Edmonton was appointed as the first female magistrate in the entire British Empire. Despite these positive advancements, there was still much discussion at the time as to how those who were not yet legally considered persons could carry out judicial duties. It was in this same year that women were granted the right to vote in municipal and provincial elections, though full acknowledgment would not come until 1929 when Emily Murphy and the rest of the Famous Five were able to win the Persons Case which gave women legal personhood in Canada.
Though this was an era of incredible gains for women’s rights, there were still barriers in place that prevented women from being independent. Despite Jackson’s incredible contributions to the city and the ways in which she paved the way for other women in her field, Jackson’s career was cut short when she married in 1918 and was then forced to leave the police force. Teachers and governesses who found love were also forced to leave their professional lives behind, as it was not accepted in the cultural landscape. Women who were married weren’t believed to have the right – or ability – to continue working in a professional manner as they were then responsible for raising a family.
Jackson did indeed go on to have a family of her own, and she passed away in 1959 after she was hit by a car near her home. Jackson was known for her kindness to those she served, and her legacy lives on in the city’s geography. The neighbourhood of Jackson Heights and Jackson Heights School credit her as their namesake.
Despite its relative brevity and the difficulties she faced in her time, Jackson’s professional legacy was incredible. Her pioneering spirit paved the way for the countless women who have followed her path, and who today can use their talents to serve our communities. To learn more or to take part in commemorating 125 years of the Edmonton Police Service you can visit their website or find interpreters on Fort Edmonton Park’s 1905 street interpreting EPS figures such as Alex Decoteau or Annie May Jackson.