‘Be white by 6 AM’: 50 years on, the ‘first’ black Mountie reflects on his decade in scarlet

Cst. Hartley Gosline.

The first time Hartley Gosline spotted a Mountie, he immediately knew he wanted to be one.

In 1959, his mother took him to see Queen Elizabeth who was visiting the veteran’s hospital just up the street from their home in Saint John, N.B., during her Canadian tour.

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Gosline, almost 10, watched as the Mounties in red serge escorted the Queen.

His was not, on the face of it, an unreasonable career ambition; men become Mounties all the time.

But at that moment, the force had yet to welcome a black member.

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There had been attempts over the years: Leslie Bryan and Alfred Coward put their names in for consideration in 1941 and were found eligible on paper. However, they never became Mounties.

While the RCMP did not provide confirmation to Global News that the pair applied, Mountie correspondence discussing how to handle their application was published in Sgt. Craig Smith’s book on the history of black people in the RCMP.

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RCMP Commissioner S.T. Wood wanted the black men to “be afforded the opportunity of writing the educational test with hope that we shall find that they have not successfully passed as to definitely refuse them the opportunity of applying on account of their colour would raise the question of policy,” according to a letter written by the officer in charge of Nova Scotia.

Letters from 1941 discussing how to handle two black men’s application to join the RCMP, as shown in the book, ‘You Had Better Be White By Six A.M.’. Provided

When Gosline applied in 1968, he either was not subjected to or aware of such hoops. He officially became a Mountie in 1969. Perhaps, he says, he was helped by the fact that the president of the local legion endorsed him.

The man was friends with Gosline’s mother — a widowed white woman — and well-respected in the predominantly white community where Gosline was raised.

“It was almost as if I didn’t realize that I was black in that neighbourhood,” Gosline says.

An undated photo of former Mountie Hartley Gosline. Provided

During training in Regina, Gosline heard rumours about some black members before him who’d been kicked out, but that was it. Training was a doozy, he says. “They tried to break you.”

Once, a corporal chastised Gosline for sticking out.

“You had better be white by 6 a.m.,” he told Gosline, a line that would later be used as the title of a book on the African-Canadian RCMP experience.

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Sgt. Craig Smith wrote You Had Better Be White By Six A.M. because he says there wasn’t a single black person on the walls of the force’s training depot in Regina when he joined in 1997.

RCMP Sgt. Craig Smith during his graduation ceremony in Regina on March 10, 1997. Provided

Smith was surprised at this, given that the preceding decade had seen incredible movement nationwide towards diversifying police organizations. Surely, he thought, they would put up the images of people of colour who had excelled through the RCMP ranks in a bid to encourage others to follow suit. The RCMP did not respond to a request about the images on the wall.

The book — which often causes people’s mouths to gape when Smith says he wrote and published it while still employed by the force — explores the black Mountie experience.

A poster Sgt. Craig Lawrence helped the RCMP create in 2006 to celebrate Black History Month. Provided

It isn’t a story that’s front and centre in the annals of Canada’s national police force. The RCMP’s official first black Mountie is Gosline. And yet in recent years, Smith unearthed a 1967 graduation photo that shows another before him. That man, who neither Smith nor Global News could find, is David Harding. From what Smith can tell, Harding lasted less than two years in the force. He was gone by the time Gosline arrived in Regina for training. A spokesperson for the RCMP did not respond to questions about Harding and said Gosline is “the first reported black member.”

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That was 50 years ago.

The Mounties that welcomed him into the RCMP “didn’t see colour,” he says. This was about policing and “the attitude when I grew up was, the policeman is your friend.”

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As a teenager, Gosline hadn’t thought much of race. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1970s, when someone called the cops to report a boy, maybe eight or nine, wandering home, kicking and hitting at the mailboxes as he went, that Gosline started to realize the momentousness of his acceptance to the RCMP.

A rookie cop barely in his 20s, Gosline turned his patrol car in the direction of North Preston, a predominantly black community in Halifax. Gosline parked in front of the boy’s home and knocked on the door.

The boy’s mother answered. She brought her son to the door, told him to tell the Mountie the truth, and after he admitted to bending a mailbox, Gosline let him off with a warning.

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When he got back to the car, Gosline says 20-some black community members surrounded it. An old man, eyes milky with age, reached for him. The man was crying as he hugged Gosline.

“I never thought I’d live to see the day,” he recalls the man saying.

It likely would have been a surprise for the community to see Gosline in uniform, says Isaac Saney, who teaches black history at Dalhousie University.

“There’s a history of geographical marginalization, social and economic marginalization, and a history of disenfranchisement.”

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In one case, after denying residents in Africville — a black community on the outskirts of Halifax — basic amenities, the City of Halifax voted in 1964 to forcibly relocate them and raze their homes. It would take until 2010 for a settlement to be reached and a public apology made. Even now, Saney says, black people in Nova Scotia face racial profiling and are disproportionately stopped by police.

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In the early 1970s, however, Saney says, with police very much “enforcing inequities” and becoming “a symbol of black oppression,” to see a black man in uniform would have been startling. Indeed, it was the first time Gosline remembers recognizing that there is a divide between white people and black people in Canada. Still, during his nine years in the RCMP, Gosline didn’t dwell much on the ways in which that divide impacted his job.

Gosline, who long since left the force and now lives in Edmonton, is rethinking what it meant to be a black man in red serge, to be a black man in an institution routinely tied to systemic racism.

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It didn’t matter that he said no, Gosline says, his RCMP bosses kept coming back and asking him to work in the drug squad.

“There was no such thing as a black Mountie,” he says, “so they figured it would be great for me to be in the drug squad… undercover.”

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Gosline remembers his refusals turning into a negative note in his file, something to the effect of him wanting special treatment because of his colour when really he had no desire to work in the drug squad just because he was black. The RCMP did not respond to questions about this incident.

Gosline, who later ended up working for a few years in plainclothes as a member of the RCMP’s now-defunct Security Service, quit in 1979. His last year of work was in Edmonton in an all-white detachment where he says he caught two of his colleagues calling him the N-word (they got more discreet after that) and he got written up for wearing an older issue RCMP coat to a hockey game even though his white colleagues did the same without issue.

Tired of the animosity and feeling like he was being singled out for being black, Gosline left. The RCMP did not answer questions about Gosline’s concerns about racism that preceded his departure.

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When Andrea Elaine Lawrence’s family travelled from Toronto to Regina for her graduation in 1987, they had no idea she was making history. What they did know is that Lawrence, the stubborn youngest daughter of a former police officer in Jamaica, had achieved her dream job.

“She loved it,” says Lawrence’s sister Charmaine.

Andrea Lawrence, the first black woman Mountie. Provided

Lawrence was this funny, generous, and gregarious person. Her laugh turned heads and made mouths curve unwittingly into smiles. Watching her put on the uniform was this incredible transformation, Charmaine recalls.

“Her voice changed, her stature changed,” she says. “She just changed into not my sister Andrea but Andrea, the RCMP officer.”

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“Andrea, the RCMP officer” still had a wicked sense of humour, her older brother Bill says. Lawrence worked in Burnaby for a while, near where Bill worked. Once, he remembers being pulled over by the cops while driving home. Sirens flashing, Bill nervously pulled together his driver’s licence and registration only to realize it was Lawrence, heckling him.

“Payback,” he chuckles, for cutting her braids off with scissors as a little kid.

Bill Lawrence with his sisters Charmaine Lawrence, right, and Andrea Lawrence, centre. In 1987, Andrea became the first black woman in the RCMP.
Bill Lawrence with his sisters Charmaine Lawrence, right, and Andrea Lawrence, centre. In 1987, Andrea became the first black woman in the RCMP. Provided

Lawrence’s problems in the force started when she joined the Musical Ride in 1991, Bill remembers.

She’d been a Mountie for four years by then. She wanted to join the ride, he says, because it “was the epitome of what the RCMP represented…. a huge iconic symbol of Canada.”

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In winter 1992, Lawrence was sent for training in Ottawa. It was an icy day, Bill remembers her telling him, and the horses were skittish. The horse Lawrence was riding lost its footing and reared, sending Lawrence flying. She landed on her tailbone. It led to “a whole onset of problems with internal injuries,” Bill says, ending with a medical discharge in 2002.

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On May 24, 2003, Bill came home to find Lawrence — who took a variety of medications to try to cope with the injuries from the accident — not breathing. She died that night at age 39.

Charmaine Lawrence, left, with her sister Andrea Lawrence, the first black woman Mountie.
Charmaine Lawrence, left, with her sister Andrea Lawrence, the first black woman Mountie. Provided

As much as she loved the Mounties, Bill says it would have been a huge challenge for her as a black woman to navigate its rigid hierarchy and the ingrained culture and mentality of the “upper brass.”

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“We push ourselves to go into areas, areas at least where those of colour — black people in particular — have not gone into, and it’s sometimes a challenge,” Bill says. “There’s no doubt about it.”

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He’s revisiting Lawrence’s files because he doesn’t want her achievements to fade.

“There are some things I’m starting to uncover,” he says, “slowly but surely.”

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At last count in 2017, Smith says there were approximately 300 black Mounties. That’s less than two per cent of over 18,000 sworn members. A spokesperson for the RCMP says it doesn’t have official figures on how many black Mounties there are, and can only say that 11.4 per cent of its members as of Feb. 1, 2019, voluntarily identified as visible minorities.

“We’ve made great progress, but it’s never about stopping and saying, ‘We made great progress,’” Smith says. “It’s about the fact that we always continuously have to keep moving.”

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His nearly 23 years with the RCMP included six years as a diversity policing analyst, a job that entailed educating more senior Mounties –– the “decision makers” –– about the realities of being black in Nova Scotia.

But, Smith says, ultimately, black Mounties need to be in positions of power, not just educating people in those positions. The force is currently conducting “a fairness review” to root out any potential selection bias, RCMP Staff-Sgt. Tania Vaughan said in a statement.

“People sometimes think that things are that much better, that we don’t have to make some of the overtures or do some of the things that we’ve done in the past, but we still need to,” he says.

“Things aren’t that much better in reality when we really look at it and we peel away some of the layers.”

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Gosline wonders now, 50 years later, if how he chose to respond to racism in the force then has coloured his memories.

“I left the force and tried to maintain my pride and the good memories,” he says.

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Gosline’s planning to request his file now.

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“I want to see what other comments were made,” Gosline says. “If nothing else, I just want to get a little clarity, a little closure on just what my career was that I let go.”