The town constable

When I was a kid the only typewriter in the house was a portable Remington “noiseless parlour model.” It was an ancient black cast thing—each key had to be pushed down about two inches. The typebar hit the worn ribbon with the sound of a steel ball bearing dropped on a wood floor. Anything other than the “Columbus method” (search and plant), one finger at a time, led to a hopeless tangle of typebars. Still, my first stories were written on this machine.

My dad was secretary-treasurer of the Town of Minnedosa. At his office were all sorts of wonderful things for a budding writer—including state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics. Dad let me write there evenings and weekends. Sometimes I had to wait, stopping after school, for the staff to finish using the machines. And while I waited (except for the brief period of time when the new town library was housed in the office), I browsed the town records for lack of anything better to read.

Eventually I found names that I knew from colourful stories I’d heard from older family friends, and that led me to take notes. A decade later, when Reston historian David L. Braddell gave me a manuscript copy of the memories of pioneer George Love, these two things blended into this short piece in Western People.

Ruling with an iron fist

First published in WESTERN PEOPLE, February 23, 1989

Minnedosa, once known as Tanner’s Crossing, was a rough place.

Two special constables were appointed at the first town council meeting on April 12, 1883, but their efforts did little to quell the lawless nature of the town. In August, 1884, however, ‘Big John’ Cameron became Minnedosa’s chief of police and before long he was a legend across the prairies.

Cameron was appointed because “he would be a terror to wrongdoers.”

“He was the biggest and strongest of them all and some would say he had a heart as big as himself and there were others who would not agree with that,” wrote Bardal pioneer George W. Love. “He said he was a Belfast Scotchman. He first saw the light of day at York Factory and he was raised on moose milk, wild cat livers and bear steaks and picked his teeth with porcupine quillls. He was not afraid of man, devil or injun [sic].

“[Big John] was a strong believer in Cameron justice. Instead of taking a man to jail and keeping him there for a week or two while a couple of lawyers were piling up a big bill against both him and the town, he would march the prisoner to the magistrate’s office and there they would assess the damages and add a couple of dollars for costs, collect on the spot, then kick him… out. No jail to heat, no board bill to pay, a big saving all round.”

Cameron’s duties were formalized in a town bylaw dated September 13, 1884. He enforced 30 bylaws, which included everything from dog tax to prohibiting furious driving and respecting public morals and prohibiting just about everything else including “disorderly conduct or any immorality or indecency.”

Cameron was caretaker of the council chamber and lock-up, market clerk and chief of the fire brigade.

Council also felt it necessary to add: “It shall be incumbent on the chief of police to at all times cheerfully obey the lawful commands of the Mayor or other head of council for said town.”

Cameron set out to bring law and order to the town, armed with brawn and his free translation of the bylaws.

Love recalled an occasion when typhoid fever was rampant, reportedly the result of polluted drinking water. Cameron and the magistrate were restricting themselves to “pop or buttermilk,” but their supply was running low. As money was scarce, Cameron went for a walk and returned with “a great hulk of a man, a regular beauty with a great Roman nose and a moustache over each eye.”

Charged with “cussin’ and using bad language where women could hear,” the magistrate fined the protesting man $5 for cursing, $3 for contempt of court and $2 for costs.

Council was by this time beginning to regret their hiring of Cameron. They asked him to leave but he refused. Then, Love said, Cameron “stepped on a train going west and was swallowed up in the great western movement.” The termination of his employment in Minnedosa was not in fact quite so innocuous.

Minnedosa was in a post-boom bankruptcy and Cameron was concerned about the payment of his $600 annual salary. While suffering the ill-effects of a hangover one morning in April, 1886, he punched a town councillor.

An emergency meeting of the town council rejected his resignation and fired him, while also swearing in 12 special constables to run him in. Cameron lost his temper and cleared the courtroom.

The next day, he was fined $10 for assault, $10 for using profane language and $5 for courtroom damages—all to be deducted from the wages still owed to him.

A week later, Cameron released two prisoners from the lock-up for reasons that are unclear. Another emergency meeting resulted in another arrest, but a month later he regained the town’s favour by stopping an assault at the railway station. Before long he was volunteer fire chief.

On June 2, 1886, Council authorized a note to Cameron for $83.30 with 10 percent per annum interest for back wages. His employment was officially over.

The town reverted to its old lawlessness, but only for another two years. Then regular town constables were instituted until the RCMP took over in the 1930s. Big John Cameron was long remembered, however, and even today stories about him circulate where old-timers gather.

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One Comment

  1. MileOCitizen
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 4:40 AM | Permalink

    This is a great story!

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