Tribute to Insp. John Nicholson

Photograph of John James Nicholson




This tribute article is for John James Nicholson – a young Protestant man born and raised in Ireland.  At the age of 19, he immigrated to Canada to later served in four different police forces in Western Canada.  In addition, he also served overseas in World War II as the Corps Sergeant Major in the Seaforth Highlanders Regiment.    



For this article, historical events have been included to provide a perspective of what situations and circumstances that were faced by John Nicholson.  His story provides an insight into the issues surrounding the ‘Prohibition Era’ in Canada. The details, contained within this tribute, were acquired through a wide range of sources: family records, government records, old newspapers, many historical books and RCMP records.

Early Beginning

John James Nicholson was born at Westport (County Mayo) Ireland on October 17, 1893.  His parents were James and Sophie Nicholson.  James Nicholson was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) stationed at Westport Ireland and who eventually rose to the rank of acting Sergeant.  His father had also served in the RIC as was his wife’s father.

Photograph of Royal Irish Constabulary members at County Mayo Ireland

As was the policy at the time, RIC members were required to live within the local barracks with their families and were not permitted to be stationed in a County where they had relatives.  This policy was required to avoid family influences and to instill an esprit de corps amongst the members of this para-military force.

Consequently, John Nicholson and his family became quite familiar with the para-military structure and routines.  His siblings were Richard Henry Nicholson (1 year younger), Lillian Nicholson (oldest sister), Margaret Nicholson and May Nicholson.

Photograph of a/Sgt. James Nicholson of the Royal Irish Constabulary with his family. As the sons of a RIC member, John and Richard Nicholson joined various social groups which would hopefully lead to a future career in the RIC or in the British military.

Photograph of the Christ Church shooting team in Ireland

With the disbanding of the RIC in County Mayo in 1909, James Nicholson moved to County Donegal Ireland in 1910 with his family.  He was able to secure a position as a postal inspector and station master for the area. 

With the reduced likelihood of becoming an RIC member, the two young Nicholson men considered other job opportunities.  After completing his schooling, John was able to secure a job working in a local law office.  While his brother Richard obtained a driver position at a location automotive dealership.

 Developments In Western Canada

In September 1905, Saskatchewan and Alberta each became a province in the Canadian federation. To support the immigration and population growth for the  prairies, the Canadian government printed pamphlets in 12 different languages.  These pamphlets were designed to promote western Canada as a land of productive soil, adequate rainfall, a land of prosperity and happiness. The terms of “cold” and “snow” were noticeably absent on the pamphlets and more descriptive terms were used such as “invigorating.”  For this immigration initiative, the Canadian government banned the distribution of prairie temperatures outside of Canada and all government documents were void of references of cold and snow.

Each Canadian Embassy coordinated the distribution of these pamphlets to farmers and tradesmen in many countries in the United States, Great Britain as well as western and eastern European countries.  In addition, pamphlets were also sent to many libraries, reading rooms, and schools as well as being posted on notice boards.  Based on the distribution of these pamphlets, the population in Saskatchewan increased from 194,000 in 1904 to 278,179 in 1914.

With the establishment of the province of Saskatchewan, the Canadian government contracted with the province to have the RNWMP perform the provincial policing duties.  For this contracted service, the province paid the federal government a sum of $75,000 per year. From the province’s perspective this was a good deal because the collection of annual fines and fees would easily cover these RNWMP costs.  Clearly, the federal government was heavily subsidizing the provincial policing costs as the actual costs were well over $225,000 annually.  In 1905, the RNWMP had 250 members to police Saskatchewan and this number would eventually increase to 362 by 1916.

The influx of immigrants not only contributed to ever-increasing crime, but also formented the prohibition movement.  The prohibition movement was a result of the ethnic conflict between settlers from the United States and eastern Canada and the immigrants from central Europe and other countries.”[1]

In 1910, the situation took on a new light when the refusal of the RNWMP to enforce certain regulations regarding the Provincial Hotel and the Provincial Liquor Act.”[2]  By 1910, “the infant province was struggling with two problems that were to vex legislators and citizens alike for the next two decades – liquor and labour.”[3]

Members of the Force were reluctant to enforce certain regulations regarding the Provincial Hotel Act and the Provincial Liquor Act.  “The early administration of liquor laws had a devastating effect on the RNWMP’s reputation and its services among the population.  In fact, the Commissioner of the RNWMP in 1913 had tried unsuccessfully to exclude the enforcement of provincial liquor laws from the Mounties’ duties.[4]

To appease the prohibitionist, the Saskatchewan government established a liquor enforcement policing group called the “Secret Service.”  In 1911, Ex-Ontario Provincial Police member Charles Mahoney was hired to head this new enforcement team.  The primary responsibility of this team was to enforce the provincial legislation which included the unpopular Liquor Act.

 Immigration To Canada

Based on the Canadian government’s pamphlet program, John Nicholson’s distant cousin, Sam Edwards decided to immigrate to Saskatchewan  and established a farm homestead between Outlook and Bounty. Subsequently, John’s eldest sister, Lillian, and her husband, William Allen, ventured forth to be the frirst of the Nicholson family to immigrate to Canada. With hopes of adventure, John convinced his sister and brother-in-law to sponsor him to Saskatchewan as a farm labourer.

In March 1912, John arrived in Canada and caught the train to Saskatchewan and settled in with the Edwards family west of Outlook  Saskatchewan.  In less than a year, John came to the realization that farm labour work was too demanding and the weather conditions were too extreme.  Consequently, he drifted south and settled in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan where he secured a position as a streetcar conductor.

1912 - Postcard of Moose Jaw Saskatchewan with a streetcar


While in Moose Jaw, John wrote to his younger brother and convinced him to also immigrate to Saskatchewan.  Richard arrived in the spring of 1913.  Both brothers contemplated job opportunities that provided both travel and adventure.  It was in Moose Jaw, they both decided to join the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNWMP). 

Photograph of "Depot" Division in 1913

Both brothers caught the train to Regina and made their way to the RNWMP barracks which was situated on the western side of the city.  It was at the RNWMP barracks that they each submitted their application to join the Force.

Much to their surprise, both were accepted into the Force.  However, Richard was deferred for two months until his birthday.  John was engaged in the Force (Reg. # 5562) on April 26, 1913 and June 17, 1913 for his brother Richard (Reg. #5611).

The para-military training provided at the RNWMP “Depot” Division was familiar to both Nicholson brothers because “Depot” was modeled after the training facilities of the RIC at Phoenix Park, Dublin.  As young boys, they would watch the RIC being drilled every morning at their father’s RIC barracks in County Mayo.

1913-1914 - Photograph of RNWMP Cpl. John Nicholson.

John Nicholson completed the six weeks of basic training at “Depot” and was  transferred to Saskatchewan.  Over the next three years, he was posted at several detachments: Lanigan, Punnichy and Elbow.  After one year of service, John was promoted to the rank of Corporal.

The lack of willingness of RNWMP members to enforce the Saskatchewan Liquor Act continued into 1915.  At North Battleford, the RNWMP Constables refused to enforce the Liquor Act.  Staff Sergeant William Loggin  (Reg. #2471) at Melfort also refused to enforce the Act.  The increasing reluctance was brought to the attention of the Saskatchewan Solicitor General who was assured by Commissioner Bowen Perry that the RNWMP would to enforce the provincial Liquor Act.

In 1915-1916, “the Royal North West Mounted Police had for some time been experiencing increasing difficulty in meeting their commitments to police the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.  Many of the men had failed to re-enlist at the end of their engagements and had transferred to one of the armed services to fight overseas.  With most of the able-bodied men in the war effort, it was almost impossible to obtain replacements.  In addition, many new duties had been thrust upon the force, such as registration and surveillance of enemy nationals; a constant patrol of the U.S. border and counter-espionage.”[5]

Apparently, in 1916 Superintendent Walton Routledge (RNWMP) outlined “war-time enlistments by men of the force had so depleted the ranks that many outlying detachments were closed and even divisional quarters were understaffed.”[6]

In an effort to slow the tide of RNWMP members not re-engaging in the Force and volunteering to serve overseas in World War I, Commissioner Perry included comment in the Report of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police of 1916:

”…all members of the force must remember that the service which they are now rendering to the Dominion and to the Empire is not less important than that which they would perform if actually serving at the front.  Further, it is a service which can only be efficiently performed by a force which has been trained in the discharge of the duties which it is called upon to undertake.  For these reasons the Prime Minister has found himself unable to consent to the retirement from the force of many officers and men who have asked that permission for the purpose of enlistment.”[7]

Photograph of Kathleen Allen.



Prior to leaving Ireland, John met Kathleen Ellen Allen in Donegal and they were engaged. Kathleen was a member of the Protestant ‘landed gentry’ back in Ireland and grew up living with her maternal grandparents at the family estate, Mulaney, in County Donegal. Upon departing Ireland in 1912, John promised to secure a position in Canada and  would summons Kathleen when it was time to marry.  Kathleen patiently waited four years to receive John’s approval to immigrate.

While waiting, she attended and graduated from the Nursing School in Belfast.  However, Kathleen decided not to continue nursing as she didn’t have the stomach for hospital work. 

Photograph of the RNWMP Rules and Regulation (Source of photo - Sheldon Boles).

Photograph of the RNWMP Rules and Regulation (Source of photo – Sheldon Boles).

To marry within the RNWMP, John had to comply with the Force’s policy as outlined in the RNWMP’s Rules & Regulations in 1916 stated “Any N.C.O. (non-commissioned officer) or Constable who decides to get married must first obtain permission from the Commissioner through his Officer Commanding .  The Commissioner may refuse such permission if in his opinion, it would not be in the public interest.  Any N.C.O. or Constable  who marries without such consent after the proceedings may be discharged from the Force as unsuitable at the discretion of the Commission.”[8]

At this time in the Force, married members were strongly discouraged.  For example, The RNWMP’s Rules & Regulation paragraph 1274 stated “Married men are not eligible for engagement.”[9]  For the Force, it was easier to transfer and control or mold a single member as opposed to a married member whose loyalties would be distracted from the Force.

Photograph of a typical NWMP & RNWMP Post sleeping accommodations. (Source of photo - Doug Madill)

Photograph of a typical NWMP & RNWMP Post sleeping accommodations. (Source of photo – Doug Madill)

In all likelihood John submitted his application for marriage and it was rejected. With John’s three year term coming to an end on May 2, 1916, he chose not to re-engage and instead sought employment elsewhere.

Joins Saskatchewan Secret Service (later to become the Saskatchewan Provincial Police)

In the spring of 1916, John sent for Kathleen and she boarded a ship for Canada.  The ship’s log outlined a question asked of Kathleen – “What is your intention on coming to Canada?”  Her response was “To marry J.J. Nicholson, Mounted Police.”  She arrived in Regina on May 21, 1916 and was met by John.  They were married six days later on May 27, 1916 at the Knox Church in Regina, Saskatchewan.

A few days later, John was sworn into the Saskatchewan Secret Service as an acting Administrative Sergeant and worked out of the basement of the Saskatchewan Legislature building.  His pay at the time was $100 per month.  At the time, the Secret Service had no uniforms and worked in plain clothes.

With a crisis facing the Force, Commissioner Bowen Perry met with Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden in July 1916.  As was outlined by the Commissioner, the Force were facing many challenges:

    • In 1914, “the existence of two provincial police forces in each province resulted in a system of policing which would eventually become unworkable.”[10] 
    • the intercepted German telegram showed the intention of the German government to undermine Canadian internal security by attacking the railways (by using Austrian and German immigrants living in Western Canada); 
    • difficulties in maintaining the necessary strength for their existing duties due to the shortage of qualified candidates and 
    • faced with increased duties under the provincial liquor prohibition.”[11] 

 “The pressure from the ‘bannish the bar’ zealots became so strong that by December 11, 1916 a year after the liquor dispensaries were closed, a vote was taken to determine whether Saskatchewan wanted Prohibition.  The voters left no doubt in anyone’s mind.  By an overwhelming mandate of 95,249 to 23,666 they voted out the liquor dispensaries and opted for Prohibition.”[12]  The Temperance Act can into effect in Saskatchewan on January 1, 1917.

Faced with a national priority of protecting the Canadian border, the Prime Minister sought the consent from Premiers of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan to an early termination of the RNWMP provincial policing agreement on November 10, 1916.  All provincial Premiers agreed to the early termination.  As such, each province was obligated to create their own provincial police force.

With this short notice, Saskatchewan Premier Meville Martin immediately directed Charles Mahoney, under the authority of the Constable Act of 1906, to create a Saskatchewan Provincial Police (SPP) force to replace the 362 RNWMP positions being removed from provincial policing duties on January 1, 1917.

Upon receiving this authorization, Charles Mahoney set out to recruit and hire new provincial police members.  At the time, there was a shortage of qualified men because many men were applying for or serving in World War I.

With a promise of better pay and no marriage restrictions, 40 new police officers were ready for duty on January 1, 1917.  Twenty nine of these new members were ex-RNWMP members which included John Nicholson.  While the remaining eleven members were: untrained, had limited education and novices when it came to investigations.  “By the end of 1918, the SPP had grown to a total strength of 106 men: 62 of these were ex-members of the RNWMP and 24 were from other police departments.”[13]

By January 1, 1917, the new provincial police force ‘could hardly be called anything more than a group of vigilantes or civilian police.”[14]  The SPP initially operated with no uniforms.

Photograph of a Saskatchewan Provincial Police member wearing the Force's new uniform.

The task of designing the uniform was left to Inspector Tom Goldsmith (ex-RNWMP member – Reg. #3980).  Since Tom was a veteran of the South African War and the RNWMP, he selected a distinctive uniform: “uniforms of khaki breeches and tunics, to be worn with brown boots and leggings.  Head gear, which was soon to become as familiar as the ‘Mountie hats, was a Stetson hat, worn Australian style, with the brim curled up on the left side.  Sam browne belt, with holster on the left side, completed the uniform.”[15]  Each SPP member was personally issued with a wallet badge for use when wearing plain clothes.

For John Nicholson, the new SPP uniform was a slight variation of the RNWMP uniform which he had become accustom to in the Force.

Photograph of a Saskatchewan Provincial Police crest (Source of photo - RCMP Historical Collections Unit - "Depot" Division)

With the establishment of the SPP, they created four Divisions within the province: Weyburn, Regina, Prince Albert, and Saskatoon.  Within all regions, a total of 45 detachments were opened.  Many of the early Detachments were mere shacks or rooms rented in private homes.

With the limited number of experienced police members in this new organization, John Nicholson applied some influence to be transferred to a community he was familiar with – Moose Jaw.  According to the John, “I was sent to Moose Jaw because they wanted a good man there” as “it was one of the busiest Detachments in the province.”[16]

As outlined by John Nicholson “The first SPP Moose Jaw Detachment was in the basement of the Court House and I was assigned to the position of Constable in charge of the Detachment.  For the longest time, I worked there by myself sixteen hours a day seven days a week.”[17]

With this transfer, his pay was reduced from $100.00 to $91.00 per month.  After complaining about the pay, John received a pay raise in June 1917 to $100 per month.  It was only in November 1917 that he was promoted to Corporal.

During his time at Moose Jaw, he repeatedly complained about the poor living quarters and the uninhabitable office area.  Despite the repeated complaints and promises, “some excuse was always found for not making the change as promised.”[18]

For most of the time John was stationed at Moose Jaw, he worked by himself.  Despite the lack of staff, he was also tasked with providing orientation and training for new SPP members on how to run a Detachment and how to submit their monthly diary submissions to the Regina Headquarters.

While at Moose Jaw, John’s investigational efforts were reported in various newspapers:

In 1917, he was involved in the arrest of Mr. D. W. Hines who was “one of those fabulous characters that show up on the public scene every generation or so.  One of his early ventures was the promotion of a farmer-owned railway and shares were issued on the basis of work donated on the construction.  When the province imposed stricter liquor laws, ‘Farmer’ Hines leaped to the challenge on behalf of the ‘little man.’  He had a volume of white ribbons imprinted with the slogan ‘Friends of Farmer Hines’ and sold these for one dollar each.  Holders of the ribbons were then given free beer! 

In mid-April 1917, Mr. Hines was arrested and as brought before Police Magistrate Lemon.  In finding him guilty, Lemon remarked that Hines was either crazy or that he was attempting to get around the law.  Since he was not in a position to decide as to Hines’ sanity, he found him guilty of the latter and assessed a fine and imposed a jail term.”[19]

Demand Restitution From Grain Thieves – Moose Jaw, Sask., Jan 25.(1918) – George Powell, Martin Powell and George Garrott, three of the alleged grain thieves rounded up by Corporal Nicholson of the provincial police in November last at Parkbeg were sentenced by Judge Ouseley in the district court here today.   All three plead guilty to the charge.”[20]

Despite the lack of staff and the expectation to work 24 hours a day 7 days a week, Officer in Charge of Regina Division outlined to John that “he could not run the detachment and that unless the diaries were sent in there would be something doing and was later told by the same officer – you’re excuse of not having time and enough assistance was not good enough.”[21] Each member of the SPP were expected to maintain daily diaries of their activities.  At the end of each month, each Detachment Commander was required to submit a report of their daily activities.  From all the submitted Detachment diaries, the Officer Commanding the Subdivision would submit his monthly report to SSP Commissioner’s Office.

This new life in Canada was extremely difficult for Kathleen.  With John gone most of the day, she was left at home to ponder her future life and coping with the harsh winters and hot summers.  In all likelihood, Kathleen probably missed the established and privileged life she enjoyed back in Ireland.

After considering the working conditions at Moose Jaw and the lack of support from his superiors, John Nicholson concluded that he was not being compensated for his work nor appreciated for his efforts.  As such, he resigned from the SPP and applied for a position with the Alberta Provincial Police.

In his application, John included several references.  One such reference was from the  Chief Constable of the Moose Jaw Police Department which stated:

(John Nicholson) “has been a resident of this City about thirteen months and has had charge of the Provincial Police Detachment here.  He is a sober, honest and a very hard working official.”  The Chief went on to say “I have found him to be very efficient and honourable in his dealings all through; and I am very sorry that he is leaving our City.”

After leaving the SPP and for the next 10 years, the SPP were pledged with allegations of political interference in police investigations.  In 1931, the Saskatchewan government commenced negotiations with the RNWMP to take over the provincial policing in Saskatchewan.

On June 1, 1928, the RCMP took over the provincial policing in Saskatchewan.  As such, the SPP was disbanded.  The Force agreed to accept the SPP members into the RCMP provided they applied.  To accommodate 53 SPP members willing to convert into the RCMP, the Force waived the marriage restrictions.  Of this 53, 10 were former members of the Force.  For the SPP members who didn’t wish a pay cut (from $140 per month to $68 per month) to join the RCMP, they joined either the Manitoba Provincial Police or the Alberta Provincial Police.

In 1929 to appease Saskatchewan government’s desire for a continued focus on liquor enforcement, the Commanding Officer for Saskatchewan established a dedicated 16 member liquor squad.  According to Superintendent Spalding – “The enforcement of this (Liquor) Act is one of the most difficult we have to contend with.  Numerous complaints are being received daily, from all parts of the province, complaining of infractions of the Act.  A great number of these complaints are anonymous and in many cases, owing to this fact, it is a difficult matter to decide whether they are of any authentic nature or not.  Nevertheless, they receive our attention, owing to the fact that if they were ignored the writer would persistently keep writing to the department of the Attorney-General, demanding action by the police; invariably giving the reason for not divulging his name to the fact that if it became known the bootlegging fraternity would make it very unpleasant for him.”[22]

Joins Alberta Provincial Police

The Alberta government was less then pleased with the announcement in November 1916 that the province had to create their own provincial police force.  Prior to the announcement, they were paying only $75,000 each year for the RNWMP to provide 250 members and performed all the duties of their provincial police force.  In the following year, the province of Alberta estimated their cost for creating and maintaining their own provincial police force was at least $300,000 each year.

Due to the short notice of termination, the Alberta government sought and received a three month extension on the withdrawal of the RNWMP members.  Legislation for the creation of the new Alberta Provincial Police (APP) force was proclaimed on April 5, 1918.

In staffing this new police force, the Alberta government recruited many ex-RNWMP members.  Most members were drawn to the APP for the following reasons:

– no marriage restrictions;

– better pay than what was being provided by the RNWMP; and

– less of an emphasis on strict discipline.

The previous experience of these ex-RNWMP members was invaluable in the establishment of this new police force.  By the end of 1918, the APP had a total of 74 members in their APP.

On February 15, 1918, John Nicholson was accepted into the APP and assigned the regiment number 92.  In view of his police experience in both the RNWMP and SPP, he was promoted to the rank of First-Class Constable and allocated the salary of $93.00 per month. In the 1920s, the base salary for a Constable was increased to $140.00 per month  “A policeman’s annual salary was enough to provide for a comfortable existence and the pay was steady, which is more than can be said about farming and other types of work available at the time[23]

After being sworn in, John was issued with the new APP uniform.  This uniform was based on the London Metropolitan Police force and was worn by most city police departments in Canada.  The Edmonton and Calgary Police Departments assisted the new APP by providing surplus uniforms in their inventories.  Uniform consisted of:

blue jacket, blue breeches with a red stripe, and black service caps with white tops for summer use.”[24]

Photographs of the first uniform of the Alberta Provincial Police

However, these uniforms were found to be totally unacceptable for patrolling remote locations on horseback.  Since most of the new APP were ex-RNWMP members, they felt that these uniforms were similar to that of a night watchman.

With complaints and suggestions received, the APP uniform was eventually changed to a ‘Mountie-similar’ uniform: Stetson hat; a khaki uniform jacket was used for daily duties; and a blue serge for attending court.  APP also had their own unique police crest.

Photograph of the Alberta Provincial Police crest (Source of photo - Sheldon Boles).

Photograph of the Alberta Provincial Police crest (Source of photo – Sheldon Boles).

Many of the APP organizational structures and policies were developed on the  RNWMP model because a large percentage of the APP members had previously been in the RNWMP.

After being sworn in and fitted with his new uniform, John Nicholson was transferred to Vegreville Detachment (“A” Division) via train from Edmonton.

Once he established his family in Vegreville, John Nicholson quickly embraced his new duties as the APP member in the area.  His primary focus seemed to be aggressively enforcing the Alberta Liquor Act and the Prohibition Act of Alberta.


As in most areas of Canada during the Prohibition era, the opinions of ‘liquor prohibition’ were divided between the rural and urban residents.  The urban residents were in favour of the prohibition while most rural residents were not.

Photograph of an Alberta Provincial Police sign which would be posted outside one of their Detachment offices. (Source of photo - RCMP Historical Collections Unit - "Depot" Division)

By July 1918, Constable John Nicholson had established a reputation for himself as an ‘aggressive’ enforcer of liquor prohibition.  Consequently, his actions were not supported my many rural folk.  As such, a 200-300 person signed petition was being circulated in the urban and rural areas of Vegreville.  The petition called for John’s immediate transfer.

Upon hearing of this petition, several community leaders informed the APP headquarters in Edmonton.   Inspector D. Fisher was delegated  to conduct an investigation.  Fisher’s investigation included: interviewing various individuals; taking statements and submitting his final report to the APP Commissioner.

The majority of the statements provided were similar to the following:

Constable Nicholson is the most capable policeman they ever had stationed there, and that the cause of the whole trouble was his rigid enforcement of the Liquor Act, and that Constable Nicholson had the support of the better element in Vegreville, and that the only ones who were opposed to him were those who were in some way violating that Act.”[25]

The investigation discovered that the noted petition had been encouraged by Staff Sergeant Matthew Fyffe (Reg. #2850) of the RNWMP.  Fyffe had previously been stationed at the RNWMP Detachment in Vegreville and still had family in the area.  On September 21, 1919, Fyffe would retire from the Force and would later become an Inspector in the Alberta Provincial Police.

Inspector Fisher’s investigational finding concluded by stating:

I have known Constable Nicholson for several years and he is in my opinion a first rate constable.  He is an absolute tea-totaller, fearless, and the stamp of man required at a detachment such as Vegreville, the population of which is composed mostly of foreigners.  The party, Wagner (petition promoter) has been convicted of intoxication on several occasions and at the present time is committed for trial on a charge of obstructing a Peace Officer, to wit Constable Nicholson.”[26]

Later the same month, John Nicholson was placed in charge of the Vegreville Subdivision which consisted of six detachments.  In a letter to the Commissioner of the APP, John’s line officer stated “there has been a great improvement in that district since he took over the duties at this post which is an important one.”  The line officer went on to state “He is, in my opinion, one of the most capable men in this Division.  He is a total abstainer and absolutely honest and trustworthy and the stamp of man which is bound to bring credit to any Force.   I would therefore recommend this constable be promoted to the rank of Corporal forthwith.”[27]

On March 1, 1919, John Nicholson was promoted to Corporal and his pay increased to $3.30 per day.  Then on June 27, 1919, he was promoted to Headquarters Sergeant and transferred to Lethbridge (“D” Division).

1922 - Photograph of Emilio Picariello.

1922 – Photograph of Emilio Picariello.

During the same time, Emilio Picariello moved his criminal enterprise to Blairmore Alberta and bought the Blairmore Hotel from which he based his bootlegging from Fernie BC into Alberta.   Picariello was commonly referred to as the “Italian Robin Hood” as he frequently shared his crime profits with the less fortunate.

Early in the spring of 1921, Sergeant J.J. Nicholson, acting on an anonymous tip, sent his APP officers to raid the (Emilio Picariello’s) warehouse.  They carted off 13 barrels to be stored in the old Frank sanatorium building.  Samples from some of the barrels were sent to Edmonton for analysis, and it was found that 4 of these contained liquor which was slightly over the legal percentage.  The other 9 were ‘temperance beer; strength.”[28]

According to Helen Bundy Medsger – “I  believe my granny had a difficult time transitioning to being a policeman’s wife. The weather on the prairies, constant reassignment resulting in each of her four children being born at different stations and having to re-establish a household nearly every year, John being gone for extended periods and, given the dangers of dealing with policing prohibition and the coal miners’ strikes, the fear of his being murdered.

My mother always told us that the real reason they left Blairmore (where she was born) was because a price had been put on my grandfather’s head by Emilio Picariello because he wouldn’t accept bribes.”

In 1921, Robert Allen (nephew of John) visited John Nicholson when he was stationed at Blairmore Alberta.  “One day a large touring car drove into the yard. It was loaded with men. They talked to Uncle Jack. In later years, I learned that this was Picariello and his men. He was a noted Bootlegger who ran liquor across the American border. He was trying to ‘buy off’ Uncle Jack but was unsuccessful.”[29]

In September 1922, Picariello and a criminal colleague were involved in a confrontation with APP Constable Stephen Lawson.  During the struggle, Constable Lawson was fatally killed.  Both suspects were arrested the following day without incident.

The Provincial Attorney-General John Brownlee attended every day of the murder trial.  Picariello was found guilty of the murder of Constable Lawson and was subsequently hung in 1923 at Fort Saskatchewan.

In efforts to tighten police control, Attorney General Brownlee placed Detective E.T. Schoeppe in charge of operations in the south and moved Sergeant J.J. Nicholson from Blairmore to Edmonton, where he was placed in charge of enforcing the Liquor Act throughout the province.  It was felt that his experience gained in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the Pass would be invaluable in other areas of the province.”[30]

By the spring of 1922, the APP received approval to increase their establishment by 50 officers with Mr. E.S. Bishop being appointed the Commissioner under the Liquor Act.  Mr. Bishop was to have control of the administrative functions while John Nicholson remained in charge of the police activities and was promoted to Inspector on March 1, 1922.

With the rumours of a potential pushback from the bootleggers, the APP acquired new police vehicles to meet the liquor traffic expected in the summer of 1923.  These new vehicles were six powerful motorcycles and “two were mounted with machines guns that were aimed by steering the bike.  Standard equipment on the other four were side cars and submachine guns.” [31]

Photograph of the Alberta Provincial Police vehicles equipped with machine guns. (Source of photo - RCMP Historical Unit - HQ Ottawa)

When November 5 (1923) rolled around and the vote was tabulated, the  majority in favour of taking liquor out of the hands of the bootleggers and rumrunners and placing distribution in the hands of the government was 23, 2110. 

In compliance with the wishes of the majority, the government proceeded to draw up amendments to the Liquor Act which would provide for the establishment of an Alberta Liquor Control Board, the readmission of liquor for consumption in private residences, in bona fide clubs for members only, and in parlours in those places where special premises had been set aside from the dining area.[32]

On May 10, 1924 with the proclamation of the revisions to the Alberta Liquor Act, the liquor prohibition in Alberta came to an end.

1924 - Photograph of Alberta Provincial Police members stationed at Drumheller Alberta. (Source of photo - Helen Bundy Medsger)

With the end of the liquor prohibition, John Nicholson requested and received a demotion to the rank of Sub-Inspector so that he could be placed in an operational field position.  On June 8, 1924, he was transferred to Drumheller to oversee union problems with the local coal miners.

According to John Nicholson’s APP Personnel file, he was not in agreement with this transfer.  In a letter to the Commanding Officer of Calgary Division, John stated “It is well known that Drumheller is a most unhealthy place to live, from more than one standpoint and I cannot see my way to take my wife and family there.” He further stated “I believe that I could not take over Drumheller district under present conditions and carry out my duties to the satisfaction of myself or my supervisors and it would be absolutely impossible for me to continue there pretending only to do my duty.  I am not built that way.  I would therefore only be there a very short time, I feel sure, until there would be a great deal of disagreement etc… possibly making another move for me.”[33]

Despite his objections, John Nicholson was ordered to proceed with his transfer to Drumheller. In early October 1925, John was transferred to the command position

of the Peace River District. An editorial appeared in the Albertan newspaper on October 2, 1925 “Inspector Nicholson came to Drumheller over a year ago, and through his firm but fair conduct of his duties, of his position and his clean personality, he won the respect and admiration of all classes of citizens. He came to Drumheller when the reputation of the force was not of the best and when , as many have said, “Anything was supported to be alright in the Drumheller district . His had the task of re-creating confidence in his own force, and the proper respect for law and order, and the splendid manner in which he accomplished his task is best found out when speaking to the better class of citizens. 

To Inspector Nicholson belongs the credit of the manner in which a small force handled the most trying periods of the recent miners’ crisis, in fact it was the Alberta originals who did the real work, as after the large force was brought into Drumheller, nothing of moment occurred beyond the usual demonstrations.”[34]

1928 - Photograph of Insp. John Nicholson of the Alberta Provincial Police. (Source of photo - Helen Bundy Medsger)

On July 1, 1928, John received his last promotion back to the rank of a full Inspector.  In the same year, the province of Alberta and the federal government commenced discussions about the possibilities of the RCMP replacing the APP.  Consequently, the morale within the provincial police became a major concern with all members of the APP.  However, Commissioner Willoughby Bryan (ex-RNWMP Sergeant Major with Reg. #2152) continually defended his police force and repeatedly outlined that he had no desire to re-join the RCMP.

Shortly after December 26, 1928, John was advised that his younger brother – Sergeant Richard Nicholson (RCMP) had been killed in Manitoba by a moonshiner over a struggle for a rifle. Check out the Sgt. Richard Nicholson story.

With the rumours of an expected takeover by the RCMP, John Nicholson took his discharge from the APP on November 30, 1929. At the time of his discharge, Commissioner Willoughby  Bryan wrote a reference for John Nicholson stating “I cannot speak too highly of Mr. Nicholson’s service while in this Force.  He has been placed in some difficult and trying situations.  He has good administrative and executive ability, is a good investigator, thoroughly trust-worthy, and honest.[35]

In 1931, the Canadian Depression was having a significant impact on the province of Alberta.  Their revenues had continued to decline commencing in 1929.  Faced with a limited provincial revenue, the provincial government of Alberta entered discussions with the federal government on the possibilities of the RCMP taking over the provincial policing duties.

The official takeover by the RCMP was on April 1, 1932.  Prior to the takeover, 80% of the APP members were ex-RCMP members.  At the time the APP were absorbed by the RCMP, the APP Constables were receiving $130 per month while the RCMP Constables were only receiving $68 per month.  To encourage the APP members to convert to the RCMP, many APP members were promised promotions to the rank of Sergeant.   Only 143 APP members were accepted into the RCMP.  In so doing, the marriage restrictions were waived for their entrance into the RCMP.

Joins Insurance Firm

After leaving the APP, John Nicholson secured a position as an insurance investigator.  In 1929, he started to work in Edmonton and later ended up in Calgary.

Joins Vancouver Police Department

In 1930, John brought his family to Vancouver British Columbia where he applied for and was accepted into the Vancouver Police Department.  From 1930 to 1939, he rose to the rank of Detective Sergeant.  Their first home was a duplex on Guelph Street in Vancouver. 

Joins Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Regiment – Militia Unit

Photograph of John Nicholson in the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Regiment in the mid 1930s. (Source of photo - Helen Bundy Medsger)

Apparently, the Vancouver Police Department didn’t offer the same para-military structure that John Nicholson was longing for and to which he had experienced in the RNWMP.  To regain this sense of regimentation, he joined the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Militia Unit in 1934 and quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant.  In his early years in the Militia unit, they “usually were doing drill and having meetings a few nights a week and on the weekend.”[36]

On September 1, 1939 and nine days before the Canadian government declared war on Germany, the Seaforth Highlanders Regiment were ordered to mobilize.  With this mobilization, John resigned from the Vancouver Police Department.   In just one week, the regiment recruited up to its full war-time strength.  With the rapid increase in establishment in the Regiment, John Nicholson was promoted to the Regiment’s Corps Sergeant Major (WO II) in October 1939 and two years later promoted to Corps Sergeant Major (WO-1).

In December 20, 1939, John Nicholson and his Regiment were on board the “His Majesty’s Troopship (HMT) Andes” departing the Halifax harbor for Scotland.

After the disaster of the Dunkirk Raids, the Seaforth Highlanders were one of the few fully equipped regiments in England.

Photograph of members of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Regiment in England. (Source of photo - Helen Bundy Medsger)

During the Battle of Britain, the Seaforth Highlanders provided support roles as: manning anti-air batteries; providing parachute defence and frontline coastal defences.

Photograph of C/S/M John Nicholson in the England with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Regiment. (Source of photo - Helen Bundy Medsger)

In July 1943, the Regiment was deployed to Italy and participated in the invasion of Sicily and advanced into Italy’s mainland.  Apparently, John Nicholson wasn’t deployed to Italy because he was over the age limit for combat by two years.  He remained in England in a training capacity.  During the later stages of the war, John was shifted from training of troops to various policing duties in England.

On Sunday October 7, 1945, John Nicholson returned to Vancouver with the Seaforth Highlanders Regiment.  The entire Regiment paraded six abreast along Granville, Georgia and Burrard Streets led by the Regiment’s Pipe and Drum Band.  It was estimated that 100,000 people turned out to line the streets and wave flags to welcome home their Vancouver heroes.

1945 - Photograph of John Nicholson in Vancouver, BC (Source of photo - Helen Bundy Medsger)

Return To Civilian Life

After returning to Vancouver, he chose not to return to the Vancouver Police Department and secured a civilian investigator position with the Canadian Department of Defense.  His work including housing inspections for low-income projects.

Photograph of John Nicholson as an employee with the United Airlines


In 1952, John and Kathleen moved to San Mateo California to be near his eldest daughter and her family.   While there in California, John secured a security guard position with the United Airlines’ San Francisco Operational Maintenance Branch.

In February 1957, John’s 4 year old granddaughter Therese was tragically killed in an automobile accident. This death was a severe blow to John as Therese and he were inseparable. Then suddenly on June 13, 1957, John Nicholson passed away at the Stanford University Hospital. John’s eldest daughter Lillian believed  that he died because of a ‘broken heart’ with the untimely passing of his granddaughter.

This tribute outlines John Nicholson’s contribution to policing in Western Canada and while at the same time being a devoted husband, father and grandfather. His family is extremely proud of his contributions.

A photograph of John and Kathleen’s gravemark is shown below:

 Photograph of Insp. John Nicholson's grave marker.

[1] Lin,  Zhiqiu – “Policing The Wild North-West: A Sociological Study Of The Provincial Police In Alberta And Saskatchewan – 1905 – 32” – University of Calgary Press (2007) – (page 31)
[2] Osipoff, Fred – “The S.P.P. 1910 – 28” – The Canadian Journal of Arms Collection (Volume 4 No. 1 – February 1966) – (page 5).
[3] Anderson, Frank W. – “Saskatchewan Provincial Police” – Frontier Book No. 28 (1972) – (page 11).
[4]  Lin,  Zhiqiu – “Policing The Wild North-West: A Sociological Study Of The Provincial Police In Alberta And Saskatchewan – 1905 – 32” – University of Calgary Press (2007) – (page 31)
[5] Anderson Frank W. – “Saskatchewan Provincial Police” – Frontier Book No. 28. (page 10)
[6] Anderson, Frank – “Saskatchewan Provincial Police” Frontier Book No. 26 (6)
[7] Canada, Sessional Papers, n. 28, The Report Of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police – 1916 (page 8)
[8] Rules & Regulations  of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (1916) – Paragraph 1275.
[9] Rules & Regulations  of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (1916) – Paragraph 1274.
[10] Horrall, S.W. (RCMP Historian) – “The Pictorial Histroy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police” – McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd 1973 (page 171)
[11] Lin,  Zhiqiu – “Policing The Wild North-West: A Sociological Study Of The Provincial Police In Alberta And Saskatchewan – 1905 – 32” – University of Calgary Press (2007) – (page 44)
[12] Stewart, Chris & Hudson, Lynn – “Manony’s Minute Men: The Saga Of The Saskatchewan Provincial Police, 1917 – 1928” self-publication 1978 – (page 5)
[13] Anderson, Frank W. – “Saskatchewan Provincial Police” – Frontier Book No. (page 25)
[14] [14] Osipoff, Fred – “The S.P.P. 1910 – 28” – The Canadian Journal of Arms Collection (Volume 4 No. 1 – February 1966) – (page 6).
[15] Anderson, Frank W. – “Saskatchewan Provincial Police” – Frontier Book No. (page 20)
[16] Alberta Provincial Police Archives – “Personnel File of Inspector John J. Nicholson.
[17] Alberta Provincial Police Archives – “Personnel File of Inspector John J. Nicholson.
[18] Alberta Provincial Police Archives – “Personnel File of Inspector John J. Nicholson.
[19] Anderson, Frank W. – “Saskatchewan Provincial Police” – Frontier Book No. (page 27)
[20] Winnipeg Free Press newspaper – January 26, 1918 edition.
[21] Alberta Provincial Police Archives – “Personnel File of Inspector John J. Nicholson.
[22] Report of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the Year Ended September 30, 1932 (page 43)
[23] Moir, Sean Innes – “The Alberta Provincial Police, 1917 – 1932” – University of Alberta (Master of Arts Thesis) (1992) – (page 123).
[24] “Alberta In The 20th Century: A Journalistic History of the Province In Twelve Volumes” – United Western Communications Ltd. Edmonton (1994) (page 269)
[25] Alberta Provincial Police Personnel File for John J. Nicholson.
[26] Alberta Provincial Police Personnel File for John J. Nicholson.
[27] Alberta Provincial Police Personnel File for John J. Nicholson.
[28] Anderson, Frank W. – “The Rumrunners: Dodging The Law During Prohibition” – Folk Pubications (2004) (page 99).
[29] Medsger, Helen Bundy – “Nicholson Family Genealogical Records.”
[30] Anderson, Frank W. – “The Rumrunners: Dodging The Law During Prohibition” – Folk Pubications (2004) (page 100).
[31] Anderson, Frank W. – “The Rumrunners: Dodging The Law During Prohibition” – Folk Pubications (2004) (page 112).
[32] Anderson, Frank W. – “The Rumrunners: Dodging The Law During Prohibition” – Folk Pubications (2004) (page 116).
[33] Alberta Provincial Police Personnel File for John J. Nicholson.
[34] Alberta Provincial Police Personnel file on Inspector John Nicholson.
[35] Alberta Provincial Police Personnel file on Inspector John Nicholson.
[36] Nicholson Banner, Maureen (youngest daughter of John Nicholson) outlined in an interview on July 15, 2013.
Photo - Sheldon Boles author of article block