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Celebrating Canada's 150th birthday with a look at policing 'then and now' in Ottawa

By Lysia Filotas
(with records from 'The History of the Ottawa Police' by Gilles Larochelle)

It's hard to believe, but the city of Ottawa in its many forms, has been around for longer than Canada has been a country. Our community was actually established in 1855, a full dozen years before confederation. 

In celebration of our country's birthday, we will be taking a 'then and now' look at various aspects of policing, starting with a brief history.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) looked substantially different from the major law enforcement agency that exists today.

The OPS can trace its roots back to nine constables who were tasked with restoring order to a violent and lawless Bytown community that was brimming with conflicts.

Early Staff photo


Unlike today's officers, these Bytown constables didn't have an official uniform, nor did they have their own weapons to carry. The police force was only armed on special occasions.

What's more, these men were not given a regular salary but rather compensated based on each task they successfully completed. Their assignments ranged from catching stray dogs, cows and horses to inspecting establishments for cleanliness and collecting taxes. If an officer caught a culprit, they were paid $1 for the good deed.

It was not until 1866 - a full year after Bytown incorporated and adopted the name of Ottawa- that officers were organized into a full-time organization that received regular payment for their work. One of the first duties of the OPS was to direct all owners of cess pools to clean them or be liable under the by-laws of the Board of Health.

It would be years before a policewoman would join the previously all men team. Flora Ann Campbell was the first woman to be appointed to the police force on December 31, 1913.

Campbell's years of service demonstrated the need for female officers in the prevention of crime and the protection of women and girls. In 1936, Alice Goyette became the second woman officer to join the OPS.

As the police force expanded, larger accommodations were needed. As a result, Ottawa Police had several temporary downtown homes over the next 50 years until they settled in at their current spot on Elgin Street, built in 1983.

Ottawa obtained thousands of acres of land from the Nepean and Gloucester townships, and the population of the city grew from 162,442 inhabitants in 1949 to 193,219 the following year. Today, there are about 900,000 people living in Ottawa and it is 2,778 square kilometres in size.

The early expansion of the city brought a whole new set of responsibilities for OPS. Officers found themselves facing rural problems such as looking for lost calves, stray horses and stolen hay. Housing projects and businesses that were part of the newly acquired land also needed to be patrolled.

The 1960s were a period of modernization for the OPS. During this time, sections of the force began to specialize by focusing on particular types of crimes.

Among the different speciality units was the Fraud Squad, who in addition to investigating fraud, responded to bank and store holdup alarms. There were also two cars assigned to patrolling the city during banking hours.

More sophisticated technology, such as an upgraded information retrieval system which reduced the search time for records and fingerprints from roughly two weeks to a few minutes, was also introduced to the police station in the 1960s.

These changes helped to transform the OPS into one of the major law enforcement agencies currently found in Canada.

Today, policing in Ottawa continues to evolve in order to best meet the needs of the community.

The organization continues to implement innovative ways to maintain the peace, order and safety of Ottawa.

Join us throughout the year as we highlight changes in policing over the past 150 years.