SHAWNA SPOWART MAKES HISTORY
She was an award-winning rookie cop who overcame personal tragedy to become the first woman deputy chief of the Cornwall Community Police Service
BY KERRY McELROY
CORNWALL, Ont. — When Police Advocates Journal sat down with Inspector Shawna Spowart last October for a profile about women and policing, the Cornwall Community Police Service officer was at first surprised.
Like many women working in male-dominated fields, female police officers tend to self-separate into those who have had gender-based conflicts, and those who have avoided such troubles.
Spowart was no exception in her initial reaction, telling Police Advocates Journal: “We’re aware of the cases in other departments in Canada.
But they’ve not been relevant to my career. I have not had those struggles here.”
Shawna Spowart has become a leading figure in a refreshing wave of women who are having a direct impact on the frontlines of Canadian law enforcement.
Last fall, she was one of two women to put Cornwall on the map by marking history. In October, Bernadette Clement, a municipal councillor for 12 years, became the first woman to be elected to the mayor’s chair.
A month later, it was Shawna Spowart’s turn.
That moment came during her November 16 induction as the first female deputy chief in this Ontario city of 47,000 during a ceremony that was rich with pomp and circumstance, and included a pageantry of officers from other police departments, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — a sign that gender parity in policing is steadily moving from the usual Canadian metropolises (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver) to mid-sized cities as well.
Announced by the CCPS last September, Spowart took over the position held by Danny Aikman, who moved up to the chief’s job.
His induction was held at the same time as Spowart’s.
Police Advocates Journal was interested in profiling Spowart, understanding that weaving women’s stories into the history of Canadian policing can include the empowered, the change-making, and the personal.
Spowart’s Canadian policing story began as early as she can remember. The Greater Toronto Area native had “always known [she] wanted to be an officer”.
But entering her 20s in the early 1990s, the “Big Five” police forces around Toronto were gripped with a hiring freeze.
With recent deaths in the family and little holding her to her native region, Spowart found herself willing to apply to departments all over Canada. “Cornwall called me five days later”, she recalls.
Asked about the twist of fate that landed her in a decades-long career in Cornwall and not on one of the big city forces, Spowart said she “never had any regrets.
In terms of being an officer in a smaller town versus the big city, you really learn the definition of community. We tailor our services to the needs of this town.”
Contrary to feeling isolated as a woman upon being sworn in in 1995, Spowart said she felt supported, adding: “My male supervisors encouraged me.
They saw something in me. I started to see a potential here to move up.”
In her career spanning three decades, how has Spowart seen women bring changes within policing and outward to community interactions?
She recalls the 1990s as a period of real change in the way women’s issues were dealt with in the community.
“When I started in 1995, there was not a strict domestic violence policy,” she said. “We needed to stop the cycles of violence in domestic violence and sexual assault.”Shawna Spowart
Unsurprisingly, as in police forces across Canada, most of the officers working in these units have typically been women.
She asserts that “women bring a different outlook sometimes,” Similarly, Spowart notes that “men are coming forward with mental health issues more. Are women in the workplace making a shift?”
In terms of her new position as Deputy Chief, Spowart is enthused about reflecting female community leaders with whom she already works in Cornwall.
She is already visible in the city as a liaison to many community groups from women’s shelters to youth advocacy groups.
Spowart sees the deputy chief position in Cornwall going to a woman as well in line with community values.
“As for me being the first woman, many community leaders here are women,” said Spowart. “The executive of the hospital and most of the non-profits are women.
When I look out into the community I see a reflection of myself. It means a lot to see.”
This leads to her second hope for positive community effect in her new position: that her tenure as deputy chief might lead to young girls seeing her and being inspired.
As Spowart explains, “I hope me being in a high-ranking position does the same for young girls.”
This is of particular concern at a time when Cornwall, like other Canadian forces, is, as Spowart describes, “constantly trying to recruit women.”
Using her own career path as a personal example, she says that “this has been a great career choice for me all along. I would definitely encourage young women into this field.”
In the summer of 1997, as a young rookie, Spowart gained national recognition for her care and rescue efforts with survivors on the scene of a fatal car accident in Cornwall.
Her stellar work in that case led her to being presented with a Top Cop Award by the Canadian Policing Association during a national ceremony held in Charlottetown, P.E.I. in the summer of 1997.
Seven months earlier, Spowart was on patrol when she and veteran Constable Scott Hanton responded to a head-on collision on McConnell Rd. A car carrying a 60-year-old man, his wife and their son had just hit a patch of ice and slammed into an oncoming vehicle.
Hanton told Spowart to accompany the man to hospital, where his wife was later declared dead.
When news came that the woman had indeed died, Spowart eased the man through the difficult hours.
“I was just listening while he told me about his life with his wife,” Spowart said at the time. “I could tell he took comfort in someone being there. He just needed to talk. I didn’t feel comfortable just leaving.”
Spowart tracked down the man’s parish priest and informed family members of the death.
She did not leave the hospital until family arrived. Hanton, meanwhile, went to see the man at home the next day, bringing him phone numbers for bereavement support groups.
They discussed the pain of loss, since both men were of the same faith. Hanton also won a CPA Top Cop award for his efforts that day.
Spowart says her professional views were personally put to the test in 2007, when her common-law spouse was killed in a tragic train accident in Cornwall.
It was her own colleagues who pulled her out of an interrogation at the police station and broke the news to her.
In that moment, all of Spowart’s understandings of what an officer needs to do in a human tragedy had come full circle — but this time, she was on the other side.
“In 1997, I had an impact on one man’s life. Ten years later, I was in his shoes,” she said.
Through her personal loss, Spowart maintains more than ever that a major responsibility of a police officer is to project a sense of care onto the members of the public with whom they interact.
“All officers need to know that they are changing the trajectory of someone’s life in those tragic moments,” she said.
“And they will all have that moment at some point.”
Twenty one years ago, when Spowart was honoured by the Canadian Police Association, she was profiled in the association’s Express magazine. In the profile, a quote stood out:
“People need to know someone cares…” It’s a quote that demonstrates that her particular approach to policing truly goes back to the beginning.
At that time, she had no way of knowing that her own life would come to be implicated in the same lessons, but these have nonetheless remained her words to live by.
She will undoubtedly take the lessons she has accrued in the Cornwall community over the last 23 years — as a woman, a police officer, and a rising leader — and apply them to her next chapter as deputy chief.
On November 16th, 2018 the Cornwall Community Police Service held a Change of Command & Change of Colours Ceremony, to reign in its new Chief, Danny Aikman, and new Deputy Chief, Shawna Spowart. The ceremony also included the consecration of the CCPS’s new ceremonial flag.
Editor’s Note: The Police Advocates Journal kindly allowed CFN to re publish this story.
Hopefully the day will soon come when a person’s sex, or gender, or partner preference, or lack of, will be about as relevant as hand dominance in our work or private lives.