Who would have suspected the 21-year-old waitress? It was 1977. The RCMP hadn’t graduated many female officers since they were first accepted into the force three years earlier.
For many female officers, it was hard enough getting recognized as a police officer, even with their uniform, badge and gun.
RCMP Constable Jacquie Olsen’s first assignment at her first posting in Cranbrook, B.C. was undercover work.
“We’re talking the late ‘70s,” Olsen said in interview last week. The economy was humming along. It was still a man’s world in the blue-collar community; there was lots of money for muscle cars and, for some, still more left over for drugs.
Constable Olsen’s job was to infiltrate a local bar known for drug dealing by getting hired on. She did. She observed the goings on for three months and provided evidence in court.
She also did a “cell job” – bunking with a prisoner to gather evidence.
Then she moved on to general duty, focusing on community policing – which remained her passion and focus throughout her career, until Staff-Sgt. Jacquie Olsen, Revelstoke Detachment Commander, retired on April 3.
I interviewed Olsen the day after her retirement. How do you summarize an entire career? With difficulty. Here are some highlights from our talk.
On Depot Division training, starting in 1977
“I couldn’t even roll over to hit the alarm. Every muscle in my body including my lips hurt,” Olsen said, noting she played a horn in the band.
“I enjoyed it, I really enjoyed it; I enjoy structure. Except for the running.”
She enjoyed the camaraderie: “I like the culture. I felt it fit me and my personality. The tightness – the sense of belonging.”
On making a difference in communities
Olsen said she loved Revelstoke. And she loved her posting in Barriere. But she didn’t love all of her postings – especially two on Vancouver Island. Her heart is in the Prairies, where she was raised. The rain and damp of places like Tofino and Campbell River got to her.
What mattered most in her community postings (Cranbrook, New Denver, Campbell River, Barriere, Gold River, Tofino, Revelstoke) was … community. Some places have better ‘community’ than others.
I deal with the RCMP quite a bit at my job, and I know Staff-Sgt. Olsen can be kind of tough sometimes. But when I spoke with her about why the job mattered to her, it wasn’t long before she welled up and teared.
Olsen specialized in community policing. “I think that’s where you make the most difference, the most impact,” she said. “We joined the police force to help. I think sometimes even we forget that, but I don’t think the public sees that in a lot of ways. I think sometimes they forget that.”
PHOTO: In the line of duty. Olsen came across this bear cub in 1992 while working in Barriere, B.C.
They get the same negative feedback a lot. “Why aren’t you out there catching the real criminals – that sort of thing.
“If you ask any member, they’ll tell you. That’s why they joined – to help people – as corny as it sounds.
“We’re there to be part of the community, whether it’s teaching the kids in school or coaching – those kinds of things.”
Olsen recalled one individual she dealt with in Barriere. He was caught up in alcohol, drugs and violence. She had many run-ins with him but worked hard to help point him in the right direction. Many years later, she got a call. He had phoned to thank her for her help. He’d turned his life around and said a lot of that was due to Olsen. To Olsen, that’s what matters.
A pioneering firearms instructor
Olsen was the second female firearms instructor at RCMP Depot Division in Saskatchewan, where she instructed from 1993 to 1999.
She was always proficient at firearms, even though she didn’t use one before training: “I could shoot; I applied the principles.”
She was known as a good shot from the beginning. If you had a reputation as a marksman, you’d have to prove it again and again. She recalled duelling it out with a detachment commander as a young officer; he was the only one who could compete with her. “We would have competitions all the time,” Olsen recalled.
“I loved it. I loved my position as an instructor. I like the discipline of shooting. I feel there’s a challenge for me as a shooter to keep my skills high.”
The RCMP has been rocked by sexual harassment claims recently. What’s her view?
Olsen said she’s had negative experiences in the RCMP related to sexual harassment, and doesn’t doubt the stories of female officer who are complaining. However, she said changes in the RCMP over her career mirror changes in society over the same period.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, sexual harassment issues were just as prevalent in a hospital, fire hall, or other workspace as a police detachment. “I don’t see that our culture was different,” Olsen said. “[Women] were still asserting our rights to be equal in society.
“There were some very real issues that were there. I had my own issues that occurred. I’m not discounting anything these women are saying – that they were harassed. Because I look back and I think of some of the things that were said and done with me … I’m not trying to minimize anything that any of these ladies went through, because some of them [were] horrible, and I have no doubt that what they’re saying is truthful.”
But she said the solution lays in how individual police officers deal with the problem. “We’re supposed to be leaders,” she said. The issues need to be dealt with head on; she objects to cataloguing the incidents for later complaints because it’s not an effective solution.
“Am I going to say [sexual harassment] was running rampant in the RCMP – this harassment and domination and the rest of it – no, I’m not going to say it’s running rampant,” Olsen said. “I’ve worked with hundreds of men, and maybe had issues with a handful. Does that mean it’s running rampant in the culture? No. It’s some men with some really bad issues that they had to deal with.”
Olsen said the force, like the rest of society, has come a long way, but still has further to go. “Generally, I don’t see that there’s an issue now. Women are fairly well accepted in society and our organization. When did it start to change? Things changed slowly. I’m going to say that it was about the late ‘80s that things really started to change.”
The force is learning and evolving on trauma
Only a few months on the job, Cst. Olsen responded to the Feb. 11, 1978, crash of Pacific Western Airlines Flight 314 at the Cranbrook airport. 42 people were killed and only seven survived the crash. It happened when the pilot unsuccessfully aborted a landing to avoid a snowplow on the runway. For Olsen, it drove the reality of the job home.
“You can only equate it to a war zone,” Olsen said of the incident. “I had four months of service at that point, and all of a sudden you’re hitting up with a major incident.”
Standing in a temporary yurt, surrounded by many, many disfigured dead was a hard introduction to the world of trauma.
It continues to this day. Highway crash fatalities are a too-common experience in Revelstoke. Police officers deal with the scene, make the notifications to families and then spend hours on the paperwork.
It can be a troubling, sometimes almost solitary experience.
And that’s without worrying about personal danger. One of Olsen’s fellow graduates from Depot was shot in Verdun, Manitoba, in 1978 while doing a routine stolen vehicle investigation.
“That’s where you have to learn to get tough. You have to learn that you deal with things appropriately,” she said.
The RCMP has improved dramatically dealing with trauma and work-related stress. In the old days, the consequences were booze and broken marriages. Olsen said new recruits are much better equipped to deal with the stresses, and the RCMP brings in critical incident stress debriefing teams to help officers deal with the trauma.
Again, Olsen said it’s a case of the RCMP mirroring changes in society.
What’s next for Olsen?
Despite being a proficient marksman, she’s hanging up her gun, literally. “It’s a tool,” she said. “Nothing but a work thing.” She’s not interested in shooting as a hobby.
She’s selling her home in Revelstoke and plans to relocate near her hometown of Edmonton, probably to one of its satellite communities. “I love this community – it’s a gorgeous community, the mountains are fantastic, but I’m a Prairie girl at heart. I need and want to go home.”
In the coming years, she plans to combine two of her interests.
A few years into her career, Olsen got involved with the Baptist church.
She’s always been an avid traveller; she’s climbed Kilimanjaro, done the Annapurna Circuit, and been to dozens of countries across Africa and Asia.
She’s exploring humanitarian travel opportunities, something she’s done in the past. The details aren’t sorted, but she’s interested in getting involved with humanitarian ships that travel to Africa to undertake aid projects, like installing water wells.
“I still believe in community, even not as a police officer,” she said.