Policing in the North – The Career of John McInnis

Policing in the North – The Career of John McInnis

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PHOTOS: Atikokan Township Police Chief John McInnis, 1981.

Dryden OPP Cst John McInnis with standard equipment for an OPP constable in 1965: file card indices for tracking trouble makers, firearms, and of course, the typewriter for writing reports.

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Policing in real life isn’t like in the movies or on TV; that’s pretty obvious. But I wanted to know, what is it really like to be an officer, especially in the vast stretches of northwestern Ontario?

I requested an interview with retired Atikokan police chief John McInnis to discuss the subject, and boy did I learn a lot. What follows are some of the interesting, funny, and tragic stories from a career spent policing northwestern Ontario.

McInnis was born in St. Thomas, New Brunswick, and grew up on a farm. He remembers looking up at the Hartland (a town 10 km from St. Thomas) police chief when he was a young boy and a seed being planted – he knew he wanted to be an officer one day. When he turned nineteen he moved to Ontario and initially worked for TD Bank in Oakville. He applied to the police force there but wasn’t hired, so he put in an application for the OPP, and after a few administrative details he received a letter to attend training in Toronto on November 23, 1964.

When he finished training, McInnis was transferred to Kenora, a place he first needed to locate on a map. He made the long drive to Kenora with a fellow trainee, but when he arrived was promptly sent to Dryden, where he spent his first five months as a probationary constable. In Dryden, he learned first-hand some of the unique challenges of policing in the north. On his first solo patrol his cruiser got stuck in a snow bank. He eventually extricated the vehicle, but was quite nervous when his supervisor found a small dent upon his arrival back at the station. He fessed up and was forgiven.

McInnis often struggled with fatigue, especially during night shifts. On one occasion he drifted off at the wheel and narrowly avoided a transport truck by jerking the car back into his own lane, a reaction which woke the constable sleeping beside him. He said nothing to his startled partner and kept driving. He later learned that he suffered from sleep apnea, which heavily affected the quality of his sleep and made night work particularly challenging.

After five months McInnis was sent even further north, to Central Patricia, which was the most northern OPP detachment in those days. Along the way he gassed up at Savant Lake and was then forced to drive the last 175 km without brakes after they failed. He laughs that story off now: “I had a good emergency brake.” Perhaps even more humorous is the fact that he drove around for another week without brakes until he discovered there was a mechanic in Pickle Lake who could’ve fixed them right after he arrived.

But things quickly turned serious when he settled in. It was just him and his detachment commander there, and one of the first major calls he got was to retrieve the body of a miner killed in an accident at the Pickle Crow gold mine. They had to descend 3,000 feet, the last hundred feet by ladder. Once retrieved, they had to bring the man’s body back up the same route on a stretcher; a dangerous feat in and of itself. That was one of the first times he dealt with death on the job, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

In May of that year he responded to a call of a man who was threatening to kill his wife. When he arrived, the man, who couldn’t swim, had waded into the lake. McInnis took off his gun belt and followed him into the cold water, twice offering his hand for the man to take. The man refused. After trying one more time with a stick, his boots were weighing him down and he was forced to go back to shore. From there he saw the man go under the water. McInnis received a commendation for his efforts, but he says that that particular death, and all the others he witnessed, are still a “constant memory” when he thinks about his career.

Policing small communities also meant sometimes seeing the law get twisted for those in positions of privilege. The first impaired driver he charged, a “significant individual” and wealthy man, had his court case dismissed after calling a former RCMP friend to the stand in his defence. “I know he was impaired,” McInnis matter-of-factly states.

After a year in Central Patricia, he was transferred to Emo, where he spent the next five years at a much bigger detachment. Unlike at his previous posting, he could now rely on twenty-four hour dispatch to communicate with the station if there was trouble. While there he responded to a number of difficult events, and one plane crash which killed a father, mother, and son (only the daughter survived) stuck with him, especially since he and his wife, Marie, were just about to have their second child. Back then there were no counsellors, psychologists, or psychiatrists for police officers after traumatic incidents. The trick, he says, was not to internalize things too much.

Eventually, in 1971 McInnis landed at the Atikokan OPP detachment, where he worked for ten years before becoming chief of the Atikokan police in January 1981. He held the position of chief for nineteen years, until his retirement in 2000. It was a “busy time” in the 1970s, with lots of drugs floating around town. A number of investigations busted up the trade to a degree, but McInnis laments that he “never got the big one.”

The job was also isolating at times for both him and his wife. Being the boss meant his subordinates (and their wives) were cordial, but their hushed voices upon entering a room were a subtle reminder that “you’re not one of them.”

But there were many happy and proud moments, too. McInnis still takes pride in the fact that he was the first chief to hire female officers: “You wouldn’t believe the next round of hiring [after that] how many women applied.” He also takes pride in hiring the town’s first black officer. Sending police to the high school to make contact with kids was also a productive venture, as was developing a good relationship with the ANFC and a protocol with the Atikokan Crisis Centre. McInnis was also satisfied when investigations led to charges for criminals, especially when dealing with violent crimes like sexual assault.

Policing has changed a lot since McInnis started in the 1960s. There were no Tasers, pepper spray, or any other fancy equipment. Early in his career, while out alone at night McInnis had just his gun – only for use in life-or-death situations – and a small baton. When dealing with large suspects, or when outnumbered, knowing how to talk was crucial to success, and survival. There was no discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder back then either; officers just processed an event and did their best to move on. Dealing with calls involving mental illness, something officers weren’t trained for, also required a soft tongue and delicate touch. Being aware of the human side of policing was and is that much more important in a small community like Atikokan, where the word “community” means your friends and neighbours, not a collection of anonymous faces, as is the case in a big city.

As our discussion wrapped up, McInnis, with a chuckle, summed up policing in northwestern Ontario as “ninety-eight percent boredom and two percent panic.”

One cannot hear his mixture of harrowing and humorous stories without feeling that perhaps it was the other way around.

To learn more about McInnis’s career, see his old uniform, or delve into the history of the Atikokan police more generally, check out the Atikokan Centennial Museum’s collection of documents and artifacts.

Adam Montgomery, PhD, is an independent author and historian who specializes in Canadian military history and the history of medicine. He writes occasional pieces for the Progress and the St. Catharines Standard and is currently publishing a book on the history of psychological trauma in the Canadian military from the First World War to Afghanistan.

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