The Women of the RCMP's Forensic Labs

While science-based TV dramas like "CSI" are commonplace these days, there was a time when the use of science to solve crimes seemed novel. But the reality is that science has been helping to solve crime for over a century.

The RCMP opened its first forensic lab in Regina, Sask., in 1937 under the direction of Dr. Maurice Powers. Small and ill-equipped by today's standards, that initial lab was used to analyze ballistics, fingerprints, blood, semen, hair, fibre, fingernail clippings, photographs and other documents.

Today, the RCMP's Forensic Science and Identification Services still provides vital support to front-line police investigations across Canada and internationally through:

  • forensic science services,
  • crime scene forensic identification,
  • fingerprint identification,
  • criminal record repositories, and the
  • National DNA Data Bank.

Of the 213 scientists and technicians – all of whom are civilian members – processing case work for the RCMP's Forensic Laboratory Service across Canada, 69 per cent are women.

  • Biology Services employs the highest percentage of women at 79 per cent.
  • Firearms and Toolmark Identification employs 45 per cent.
  • With the exception of Firearms, all laboratory sections employ more than 50 per cent female scientists and technicians.

"The laboratories certainly have come a long way," says Malcolm Gutfriend, Program Manager for Trace Evidence Services for the Forensic Laboratory Services at RCMP Headquarters in Ottawa, Ont. "In the early 1960s, Ed Perreaux was hired as an orderly by the Regina laboratory. When he retired in the mid 1990s, we discovered that his original job description was still on his personnel file. One of his duties had been to drive the female forensic scientists to court when they had to provide testimony. They weren't allowed to drive themselves."

Dr. Frances McGill, the RCMP's first female medical investigator

While the forensic investigators working in Dr. Powers' original Regina lab were all men, the individual who succeeded Powers was a woman. Dr. Frances McGill, sometimes called the "first woman Mountie," was the Force's first female medical investigator.

Sometimes called the "Sherlock Holmes of Saskatchewan," Dr. McGill was a gender pioneer. After earning her medical degree from the University of Manitoba in 1915, a time when few women studied medicine, she devoted most of her working life to forensic pathology, an emerging science in Canada at the time.

In 1918, Dr. McGill was appointed provincial bacteriologist for the Saskatchewan Department of Health. She was a diligent worker, particularly during the Spanish influenza epidemic. In 1920, she became a provincial pathologist and, two years later, she became director of the provincial laboratory, where she primarily handled cases involving suspicious death. In the course of her duties, she worked closely with various police forces, including the RCMP, and earned a reputation as an outstanding criminologist. She retired as provincial pathologist in 1942.

In 1943, Dr. McGill formally began working for the RCMP, replacing Dr. Powers as the director of the forensic laboratory in Regina following Powers' tragic death in an airplane crash. Working for the RCMP, Dr. McGill trained the country's future police officers and detectives in medical jurisprudence, pathology and toxicology. She taught them how to collect and preserve evidence, study a crime scene and distinguish between animal and human blood.

After formally stepping down from her duties with the RCMP, Dr. McGill was appointed its Honorary Surgeon on January 16, 1946, and in this role continued to serve as a consultant to the Force. She remained active until her death in 1959.

Recognized for her unfailing professionalism, Dr. McGill built a solid reputation as a woman working tirelessly in a profession dominated by men. Her success was undoubtedly a product of her personal motto: "Think like a man, act like a lady and work like a dog."

Supt. Tracy Ramsay, the RCMP's first female forensic identification specialist

Did you know?

The first time a woman, a civilian member, was named as chief scientist of Serology in the RCMP Laboratories was in 1968.

In 1989, after working for eight years in "E" Division (B.C.) as a general duty officer and a member of the General Investigation Section, then-Cst. Tracy Ramsay found herself applying to Forensic Identification Services at a time when the RCMP was attempting to bring more women into its specialty sections. Since the beginning of her police career, she had witnessed and respected the work done by forensic identification specialists at crime scenes, so when a colleague mentioned her aptitude for detail might be well suited to forensic science, she decided it was time to change gears.

After completing the eight-week training course, she spent the next year working as an identification understudy before passing her certification board. While she admits qualifying to become a forensic identification specialist was an arduous process, she never felt her gender set her apart. Instead, she felt welcomed and respected by the other dedicated forensic identification specialists, professionals willing to share their expertise.

General duty police officers are qualified to provide factual testimony in court, but officers who specialize in fields such as forensic identification must be qualified before the courts to provide expert testimony. Since the courts place such a high degree of importance on expert testimony, before they permit specialists to testify, they first must articulate and defend their qualifications and expertise on the stand. Each time the courts accept expert testimony, an officer's qualifications are reinforced. Understandably, expert witnesses are extremely proud of their qualifications.

"This is exacting work. No one wants to be responsible for providing testimony that establishes bad case law. As a forensic identification specialist, you're always aware that your testimony can determine whether or not someone goes to jail. You need to be 100 per cent sure that you followed sound scientific methodology and that you can defend your conclusions," says Supt. Ramsay.

After 16 years as a forensic identification specialist, she left the field because she aspired to move into the officer ranks. While she thoroughly enjoys her current post in the Chief Information Office Sector, when asked if she misses Ident, she says, "Absolutely, I would go back in a second."

Read the previous In Focus, Female First and Meet Troop 17 features

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