- Feb 8, 2021
Canada’s First Black Police Officer and Ontario Provincial Constable
by Michele Hamilton, Legal Counsel, OPP Association
On the heels of Black History month, meet Constable Peter Butler III, a provincial constable who began his policing career with the Middlesex County Police in 1883 and served his community as a member of that force until he joined the Ontario Provincial Police just three years after it was founded in 1910[i]. It is possible that the next Black OPP officer did not take up his post until 1960[ii], nearly five decades after Constable Butler.
Constable Peter Butler III was born in 1859, just 25 years after slavery was wholly abolished in Canada. He was part of the first generation of his family to be born in Canada and only the second to be born a free man. He grew up at a time in Ontario’s history where Black Canadians faced intense hardships and obstacles as a result of overt racism endorsed and protected by discriminatory laws.
Black Canadians faced legal restrictions to purchasing real estate, were refused jobs in government agencies, and excluded from membership in trade associations. Ontario’s Common Schools Act of 1850 created racially segregated schools, a practise that remained legal until 1965.[iii] They were routinely refused service in restaurants, hotels, theatres and public recreational facilities. In 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on whether a merchant could refuse to serve a customer on the basis of race and answered the question in the affirmative, holding that withholding service from black customers, was neither contrary to good morals nor public order[iv]. At the time of this ruling, the Supreme Court was unfettered by provincial human rights legislation that would not be passed for 20-40 years (1962 in Ontario); nor by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would not be proclaimed until 1981. The Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed that racism was perfectly legal in Canada. Despite social prejudices and legally-sanctioned racism that obviously ruled the day in 1883, it is remarkable that Peter Butler III commanded enough respect to be appointed as a Provincial Constable.
Constable Butler is described as a large and imposing man. Reportedly, he kept the peace by wielding a large stick, rarely ever carrying a gun although he was a “deadly shot”[v] and had a large collection of guns collected from law-breakers[vi]. Although he generally kept the peace and escorted prisoners to jail in London, he also worked on the infamous and gruesome Donnelly Massacre in 1880[vii] in which five members of the Irish Donnelly family were murdered and their farm burned to the ground. Despite working such difficult cases as the Donnelly murders, Constable Butler was known to have treated prisoners and vagrants with respect. In a 1977 interview Constable Butler’s grandson, recalled his grandfather providing vagrants or fugitives with food from his own kitchen and sometimes housing them overnight[viii]. He notoriously bought a 25-cent bucket of beer for the prisoners every Saturday night. [ix]
Constable Butler III served his community as a peace officer for over fifty years, continuing as a Provincial Constable until his retirement in 1936. This is a remarkable achievement that has recently been recognized in Constable Butler’s hometown with the unveiling of a mural depicting his service to the community, to policing and to the OPP.[x]The Association of Black Law Enforcers also helps keep Constable Butler’s memory alive by awarding an annual scholarship in his name.
When he died in 1943 at the age of 84, his funeral was attended by local dignitaries and American guests and featured a well-deserved tribute by the OPP with six OPP officers following his casket to his final resting place at Sauble Hill, the historic burial site of the original black settlers.[xi]
[i] Although the OPP has not confirmed Constable Butler’s membership, it has been widely reported. See for example, Hill, Daniel G: A Brief Pictorial History of Blacks in 19th Century Ontario’, The Ontario Human Rights Commission, undated; ; “Peter Butler A Pioneer of Biddulph”, The London and Middlesex Historian, Autumn 1990;; Rolph, Dan: “Lucan Mural Celebrsates Wilberforce Colony”, The Exeter Lakeshore Times, Dec 3, 2020; ; Hill, Daniel G., The Freedom Seekers, The Book Society of Canada Limited, 1981.[ii]Ontario Provincial Police Official Facebook, 2020[iii] https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/racial-segregation-of-black-people-in-canada[iv]Christie v. The York Corporation, 1939 CanLII 39 (SCC);  SCR 139[v] Hill, Daniel G., The Freedom Seekers, The Book Society of Canada Limited, 1981.[vi] Kim’s Speaking Out Blog. (2011, August 6). Peter Butler III [Blog post].[vii] https://www.strathroyagedispatch.com/news/local-news/black-lives-matter-renews-interest-in-sw-ontarios-black-history-2[viii] Hill, Daniel G., The Freedom Seekers, The Book Society of Canada Limited, 1981.[ix] Kim’s Speaking Out Blog. (2011, August 6). Peter Butler III [Blog post].[x] Martin, Mary, “Black history: Lucan-Biddulph mural honours Wilberforce Colony, Butler family”, Toronto Star. November 20, 2020.[xi] Hill, Daniel G., The Freedom Seekers, The Book Society of Canada Limited, 1981.
NOTE: The above article will be published in the OPP Association’s Magazine “Beyond The Badge” March, 2021 Edition. The following is an additional follow up to the above article, authored by Michele Hamilton
Constable Peter Butler III Was Named After His Grandfather
From Whom He Learned About Enduring Hardship And Achieving Goals
The Senior Peter Butler and his wife settled in the Wilberforce Colony in the early 1800’s having escaped slavery and other forms of discrimination in the United States. Located near present day London, Ontario, the Wilberforce Colony was home to a number of free Black men and women, most of whom emigrated from the free state of Ohio. With land purchased from the Canada Company with the assistance of local Quakers, the Black settlers worked to first clear the land and build a community where they could live independently and peacefully. Settlers farmed, built homes, churches and businesses, many of which thrived. There were saw mills, cattle farms, retail stores and schools.
Unfortunately, financial problems plagued the colony as their numbers were not high enough to earn sufficient funds to keep up the payments owed on their land. Although Irish refugees also began to settle in the area and patronize the businesses and schools, the population of the rural communities did not grow as the community had originally envisioned and a racial divide grew as the Canada Company refused to sell any more land to black settlers.
Amid these struggles, the first Peter Butler built up considerable wealth. He farmed his own land while also serving as a medical practitioner, supplying his neighbours with herbal medicines. But many of the Black settlers left the area, either returning to the United States or moving to nearby towns such as London and Chatham. With this exodus, the senior Butler acquired a large portion of the land that had been purchased for and by the Wilberforce Colony. By the 1860s, the Colony effectively was dissolved.
Today, a mural on the former colony’s Main Street pays homage to the original settlers and recognizes Peter Butler III as Canada’s first Black police officer with the OPP.
By the time the new settlement called Lucan was founded in 1871 the area was predominately populated by Irish settlers who had fled famine in Ireland. Lucan was founded “in anticipation of the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway to Sarnia, projected in 1854 and built 1855-59”.
Very few Black families remained in the area and at the time of Lucan’s founding, the Butlers may have been the only black family still residing there. Having made Lucan their home, seven generations of Butlers have lived in Lucan, with Constable Butler’s grandson still a resident.
Upon his death, Peter Butler I passed his wealth and land down to his son and eventually, to his grandson, Peter Butler III.
 Freedom seekers, p68 Although the state of Ohio prohibited the buying and selling of slaves decades before emancipation, slaves could be brought in from other states, runaway slaves could be captured under the Fugitive Slave Act and free Black people were still subject to discriminatory legislation intended to protect the political power of white Americans and prevent the black population from increasing at least in part by making freedom in Ohio seem only slightly less attractive than enslavement. Blacks were also required to post a $500 bond, the equivalent of 2 years’ pay for a labourer, the sum that was prohibitive to most. These laws were common in free states and placed barriers and restrictions on voting, renting or owning land, earning income, bearing arms, worshipping, marriage, walking down the street, etc. and would mark the beginning of the massive criminalization and incarceration of African Americans. White citizens also faced restrictions limiting their ability to support the efforts of their Black neighbours. For more on this, see Hand, Greg, Ohio Was Not Home-Free for Runaway Slaves”, Cincinnati Magazine, February 18, 2016, Members of the Quaker community had extended credit to the settlers to enable the purchase of land to house the settlement. According to the Ontario Provincial Plaque entitled “The Wilberforce Settlement of 1830” located in Lucan, the settlers purchased 800 hundred acres of land from the Canada Company.“Black History: Lucan-Biddulph Mural Honours Wilberforce Colony, Butler Family”, by Max Martin, Toronto Star, November 20, 2020, Ontario Town Blog, Speaking Out Blog.www.donnellymuseum.com/history Toronto Star Article noted above