We take it for granted these days that a police force is present in nearly every community in Canada. For many years in the west, law and order came from constables who would pass through the area on their patrols every few weeks. Eventually, more permanent police forces were established and that was the case for Fort Nelson.
The Fort Nelson Police Department was established by Corporal Barber in Jan. 15, 1927. Barber was accompanied by Constable Gunnell. The two men had left Fort St. John on Sept. 15, 1926, administering law and order along the trail for the three months of traveling to their new destination. In the spring of 1927, Barber’s wife would join him and would remain in the community for only a few months. She and Barber, along with Gunnell, were relieved by John Seymour Clark in Oct. 1928.
At the time, Clark had been stationed at Hudson Hope when he found out he was to take over in Fort Nelson. Clark left Hudson Hope with his wife by boat on Sept. 23, 1928. They travelled to Fort St. John and once in the community, travelled to Fort Nelson by horse pack train. It would take 18 days of rain, snow and even a shortage of food for horses, before they arrived.
Clark was not someone who shied away from something difficult or dangerous.
Two months before he turned 16, Clark chose to leave the community in 1914 to join the British Grenadier Guards in London. He was accepted and would serve throughout the Second World War. Coming to Canada after the war, he joined up with the RCMP for eight years and served in the Northwest Territories, Alberta and British Columbia. In the north he became noted for his ability to handle dogs and was well-known for it throughout his career.
Unlike the previous two constables, Clark would remain in the community for the next ten years. Not only serving as policeman, he was the game warden and kept track of births and deaths, issued rations and took part in official functions in the community. He would travel through the area by horse and boat in the summer, and by snowshoe and dog sled in the winter. Clark was remembered by those in the community as an extremely brave and honorable man.
After his time with the RCMP, he joined up with the B.C. Provincial Police and had his first posting at Hudson Hope in the spring of 1928. In that summer, his future wife Genevieve came to the community and they were married. Soon after, they left for Fort Nelson.
In the community, he and his wife would have three children with Genevieve travelling hundreds of kilometres to the hospital. Prior to her first son, John, she travelled 1,100 miles by river to reach Edmonton. For the birth of her daughter, she spent three weeks on the trail by dog sled, then rose a train for 500 miles to Edmonton.
As Walter Taylor said in 1934, “Clark was one of the finest men I ever met, him and [Constable] Baptiste too. He was policeman, game warden, magistrate, judge…acted as his own judge, and fair. He was a fine man. He made a big trip and rounded up all those Alberta trappers that were trapping in B.C. and told them they would have to live in B.C. to trap in B.C. Not fair to us, they weren’t paying B.C. licences.”
For much of his time in the community, Clark was accompanied by Baptiste Villeneuve, who would spend 30 years in Fort Nelson, serving the community. The two became very close, as Genevieve relates, “The second winter he had Baptiste Villeneuve as his interpreter and special game warden. Baptiste was only 15 at the time and would stay on with the game department until his retirement. Baptiste was a great lad, and he lived with us for nine years, just like our own son.”
Suggestions for columns or questions? E-mail Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to his podcast by searching for “Canadian History Ehx” on your podcast platform. Find his show on YouTube by searching for “Canadian History Ehx”.
Information for this column comes from The Fort Nelson Story.