Published in the Montreal Gazette on September 15, 2012
My unrelenting quest for a photo of Constable George Shea, so tragically murdered in 1908 on where is located today the esplanade of the ‘Quartier des spectacles’ (see Gazette, ‘Looking Back’, July 14, 2012), led me to an especially little known city museum only a block away from the very site of the horrid deed.
Le Musée de la Police de l’île de Montréal et de l’île Bizard is, in fact, no ordinary museum that you would likely come across on the city cultural circuit. Firstly, its extensive historic collection is scattered a little bit everywhere throughout the Police Headquarters Building on St. Urbain Street, opposite Place des Arts. As a result, one must be accompanied, from floor to floor, in what is essentially a guided tour of the holdings in a rather large, nine-storey edifice.
For many years, numerous policemen, both active and retired, came to believe in the importance of putting together a means whereby much of the history of Montreal’s police work could be preserved for future generations. Accordingly, on September 9, 1992, then – Director Alain St. Germain authorized the creation of the archive on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of foundation of the island – wide police force. That same year, the nascent institution held its first exhibition in the old Police Headquarters Building on Bonsecours Street in Old Montreal.
As is the case today with many such similar associations, the Montreal Policemen’s Museum quickly gave itself a mission statement. Its first aim is to honour the role played by the thousands of men and women who contributed over the years to the maintenance of the peace and public security of this city. Particular tribute is paid to those who tragically lost their lives in doing so.
The second role of the museum is to authenticate and categorize many of the objects it has been given by various individuals down through the years. In that regard, it has in its possession nearly 20,000 items, only one percent of which are on exhibition.
The police force museum first gathers, then restores, and finally exhibits objects and documents that illustrate the organizational story of the SPVM.
Some of the presented items include:
Uniforms and insignias (badges)
Medals and tributes
Drawings, maps, graphics and illustrations
Equipment, weapons and ammunition
Photos and paintings
Documents and newspaper articles
Various video and sound recordings
Means of transport
The permanent and temporary collections are kept in display cases that are located in strategic corners of the building where the greatest numbers of people are likely to see them
Upon arriving in the entrance lobby of the SPVM command centre, security will call for one of several volunteers to escort you on your visit. The very first stop is that of the memorial plaque in tribute to those police officers who gave their lives in the line of duty. As well, at this point, your tour guide will give you a brief overview of the evolution of police work in our city down through the years.
The history itself lesson raises many interesting points, the most noteworthy of which is perhaps the role of women in the force. Surprisingly, the very first woman engaged as a police officer in Montreal was way back in 1917 when there was a shortage of men due to the on-going war in Europe. Societal values being different then, the experiment lasted only a few months before being terminated. By 1947, however, policewomen were once again seen in the streets of Montreal. As was so often the case in days gone by, they received the same training, had the same responsibilities, but were paid less.
The unsteady growth of the Montreal police force is stressed during the guide’s detailed presentation. For instance, despite having had only 122 men armed with carbine during the period of the 1837 Rebellions, later development was, if anything, even slower in many diverse respects. By way of illustration, during the Edwardian Period, (some seventy years after the 1837 Patriot Rebellions) the cobbled together gymnasium in which policemen trained was still found in the old Bonsecours Market on St. Paul Street!
Perhaps the article of the greatest historical significance held by the museum is the ceremonial sword worn by Guillaume Lamothe, Montreal’s seventh Chief of Police. Lamothe, who held the position from 1861 – 1865, can be seen carrying the weapon in several period photos.
Most of the items retained by the archive are stored in a holding room deep in the sub-basement of the Police Headquarters Building. The windowless space also serves as a research area for individuals who may wish to examine on site various police files and photo albums that are not on exhibited elsewhere in the edifice.
If it is possible, the tour also includes a quick visit to the operation centre of the SPVM. The Cape Canaveral – like facility is viewed from above and presents the image of a police force on the cutting edge of modern technology.
Going to see the Policeman’s Museum is well worth your time. Manned by dedicated, experienced personnel, the visit puts into perspective the complexity and dangers of law enforcement work in our city. In my case, it also culminated in the unearthing of the only known photo of the late Constable George Shea whose unfortunate death occurred so long ago yet so nearby.
Le Musée de la Police de l’île de Montréal et de l’île Bizard
is located at 1441 St. Urbain Street, Room 0-200. Telephone: 514 – 280 – 2043
Guided tours are available on Tuesdays.
below, the only known photo of Constable George Shea who was so tragically murdered in April of 1908 by madman John Dillon on Mance Street where today is found the esplanade of Montreal’s ‘Quartier des spectacles’
(courtesy of the Policeman’s Museum)