Constable Rose Marie Russell-Coffey made history in 1975 when she became the first female RCMP police officer in Newfoundland and Labrador.
She was one of three women from this province to be sworn in September 16, 1974. The others were Cheryl LaFosse and Gail Courtney. While LaFosse and Courtney were posted to the mainland, Russell-Coffey was posted to Corner Brook.
All three women were sworn in simultaneously with the rest of their troop of thirty-two from across the country through coordinated times — a gesture meant to transfer the pressure of being the first onto a group of women rather than an individual. The event was a cross country media sensation and a radio reporter broadcasting from RCMP’s headquarters told listeners, “The force that always gets its man now has women.”
Russell-Coffey grew up in North River, Conception Bay, the only girl among five brothers. She was in the fourth year of her Education Degree at Memorial University, following in the footsteps of her father and brothers who were all teachers, when she first heard the RCMP were hiring women.
“I wanted a challenge and I knew to be accepted was going to be quite an accomplishment.” At the encouragement of her friends she went down to RCMP Headquarters in Pleasantville and picked up an application.
She did not know any police officers and had no family history in the Force. “My brothers encouraged my decision for a very different career choice and my mother was very proud of the fact that I had been accepted in to the first female troop.”
Depot was not prepared for the first female troop. “I enjoyed my time with my fellow troop mates, but Depot was not a pleasant experience,” she admits. The staff at Depot initially wondered if women could meet the academy's strenuous physical requirements. They made a few small modifications to the training objectives but other than that, the women were expected to meet the same training objectives as male recruits in firearms, self-defence, swimming, drill, and academic studies.
“Most of the girls gained weight and the staff couldn’t figure out why because most of the male recruits lost weight. It came from big breakfasts and meals being mandatory for us to eat when most of us were not used to eating that much. We did not need as much food as the men. In addition, we ended up with big biceps and muscles because all the physical training was geared for men.”
The first all-female troop graduated from RCMP Depot on March 3, 1975. The media continued to treat them like a Canadian novelty. The local newspaper played on Russell-Coffey’s name comparing her to an old Hollywood Mountie movie saying, ‘The RCMP has it’s Rosemarie. But, unlike the famed Rose Marie of the film ‘Rose Marie’, this woman has a different place in RCMP history.”
Another article showed a picture of Russell-Coffey marching, underneath it was the quote, ‘The drill staff took pains to teach us how to march without a wiggle!’ Headlines that would bring about great criticism today.
Constable Russell-Coffey’s first posting was Corner Brook city and at first, she was excited about returning to her home province. “In retrospect, I shouldn’t have come home. I think career wise it would have been better for me to go somewhere else. Corner Brook is small, and for the first female police officer, it was like living in a bubble. In a bigger province, I could have settled into police work.”
The public in Corner Brook were taken with her. “I was asked to speak at graduations, invited to events, it seemed like I was always on display.”
She found her male coworkers great to work with. “I have really good memories of Corner Brook. I had a fabulous trainer named, Cpl Harold Avery. He was so knowledgeable, with great investigative and interviewing skills and just a good person.”
After a year she was transferred to Gander Detachment where she had a vastly different experience.
“The first thing the corporal in charge did, was to tell the whole detachment about how he believed women should not be in the Force.” The detachment assistant at the time tried to comfort her by saying, ‘His wife doesn’t work outside the home and he doesn’t think other females should either.’
The corporal’s opinion set the stage for her treatment and the environment soon became poisonous.
It was the opposite of what she had experienced in Corner Brook. At this time, she was only twenty-one-years-old, and she was so negatively affected by her posting in Gander that she left the Force with two years service.
Although the RCMP had allowed women to become police officers, they still were not welcome in the Musical Ride, as dog handlers or instructors at Depot.
“I figured if this was an example of what my career was going to be like, then I didn’t want that. It was too demeaning.” Russell-Coffey had her education to fall back on. She became a probation officer and then a parole officer for the next six years. She went back to Memorial University and finished her Education Degree and then completed a Bachelor of Special Education followed by two Masters level degrees. She has since retired from a career in teaching.
She married Bernard Coffey, a private lawyer and they have four well-accomplished daughters. Rose Marie and Bernard have been married for thirty-nine years. “I settled into another career and focused on my family.”
Today female Mounties are no longer put on display, they have come a long way since 1974. In Canada there are approximately 14,943 female police officers. They make up 22% of all police officers. The representation of women as police officers has been steadily increasing since 1986 when data on gender were first collected and women represented 4% of officers.
Cst. Russell-Coffey is proud to have helped pave the way for other women who want to dedicate their lives to law enforcement. “The RCMP is a respected police force.”
She attended her twenty-fifth reunion and was happy to see her troopmates. “I did learn a lot from the RCMP, and I look back with pride on being in the RCMP and particularly in the first female troop."
Since 1974, women have made significant contributions as RCMP officers in every part of Canada and around the world and they now serve in every facet of the RCMP.
Cst. Russell-Coffey will always have the honour of being the first female Mountie in Newfoundland and Labrador. “I still think that being accepted into the RCMP is a big honour.”
For more RCMP stories you can buy "In Search of Adventure - 70 Years of the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador" here