‘The Story of the First Aboriginal Police Officer in Canada – Alex Decoteau’

Each spring, students in Edmonton gather to take part in a  five-kilometre race named in honor of Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau. To  the children, Decoteau is a role model, an example of what people can  accomplish with their lives. And although Decoteau’s life was a short  one, almost 90 years after his death he still inspires others with his  example.  Alex Decoteau was born on Nov. 19, 1887 on the Red  Pheasant Reserve near North Battleford, Sask. He was the second youngest  of five children born to Mary and Peter Decoteau. When he was just  three years old, his father was murdered and his mother, left with no  means to support herself and her family, asked that three of her  children be placed in the nearby Battleford industrial school. Peter  Decoteau had been employed by the Indian department for many years up  until his death, and the department agreed to Mrs. Decoteau’s request,  and young Alex began his studies at the industrial school. Decoteau  was a good student and an exceptional athlete. He excelled at a number  of sports, including boxing, cricket and soccer. He also demonstrated  his ability as a runner.  When he finished school, Decoteau moved  to Edmonton where a job awaited him in a machine shop owned by his  brother-in-law. He also continued to run, and soon made a name for  himself as a middle and long-distance runner. He ran his first  competitive race in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. in May 1909 and came in  second. He had greater success in his next race the following month, a  five-mile race held during the Edmonton Exhibition. But it would be his  next race that would make people sit up and take notice. It was the  Mayberry Cup in Lloydminster, located on the Saskatchewan/Alberta  border, another five-mile race. When he’d crossed the finish line that  day in July, Decoteau had set a new western Canadian record, finishing  in 27 minutes, 45.2 seconds.  In 1909, Decoteau left the machine  shop for a career in policing. He joined the city of Edmonton’s police  force, becoming Canada’s first Aboriginal police officer. And he  continued to run and to win. In 1910, he entered the Alberta  provincial championships held in Lethbridge. Decoteau competed in four  events-the half-mile, one-mile, two-mile and five-mile races-and took  first place in each of them.  His list of racing accomplishments  includes winning the Calgary Herald’s Christmas Day Road Race three  times, the Hon. C.W. Cross Challenge Cup in Edmonton five times, and the  annual 10-mile race in Fort Saskatchewan three times.  In 1912,  Decoteau was given a leave from his policing duties so he could  represent Canada in the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, competing in  the 5,000-metre event. Decoteau finished second in his qualifying heat  and in the final was running in third place after the fourth lap when he  began getting leg cramps. When the race was over, he had finished in  eighth place.  Despite not winning a medal, Decoteau arrived home  from the Olympics to a hero’s welcome, complete with a parade down  Jasper Avenue, right through the heart of downtown Edmonton.After  the Olympics, Decoteau returned to policing. He was promoted to police  sergeant and was given his own station. He also continued to run,  winning almost every race he entered.  Then, in 1916, Decoteau  answered a call to another kind of duty. He enlisted with the  Canadian army in April 1916. He would use his athletic abilities in aid  of King and country, serving as a runner in the trenches during the  Second World War. The following May, he shipped out overseas with the  49th Canadian Battalion, arriving in France. In a letter to his  sister written in early September 1917, Decoteau talked about his  experiences in the war. He spoke fondly of all the people from Edmonton  he’d run into in France, and told her about a bout of trench fever he  was just beginning to recover from. He asked her not to tell their  mother he’d been ill. He didn’t see any reason to worry her needlessly.  By  the end of October, Decoteau found himself in Belgium, and in the thick  of the battle on Passchendaele Ridge. British and Australian troops had  been battling at Passchendaele for months, with little to show for  their efforts other than mounting casualties.  The battle to take  the ridge was an important one to the allies, as the high ground would  give them footing to launch attacks on ports on the Belgian coast, under  the control of German troops and being used as bases for their  submarines. The allied forces launched their assaults from the only part  of Belgium they still held, around the town of Ypres. The Canadian  troops would try to take the ridge battle by battle, bit by bit.  The  Canadian effort was eventually successful, but at a huge cost. By the  time the Canadians had secured the ridge on Nov. 10, 16,000 Canadian  soldiers had been killed or wounded or were missing. One of those 16,000  was 29-year-old Alex Decoteau, who died in the morning hours of Oct.  30, killed by a sniper’s bullet during an attack on the German line.  The  bodies of some of those who fell at Passchendaele were never recovered  but were instead claimed by the mud of the battlefield. Those who were  recovered lie in a number of cemeteries surrounding the battle site,  some identified, but many more buried as the unknown dead. Alex  Decoteau was buried in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery north of  Passchendaele, alongside 649 other Canadian soldiers killed. In  1985, Decoteau’s friends and family gathered in Edmonton to hold a  special ceremony to bring his spirit home. In attendance were members of  the Red Pheasant band council, First Nations veterans, representatives  from the Canadian Armed Forces and a 10-member honor guard from the  Edmonton Police Service. A drum group performed a burial song, then a  piper from the police department played Amazing Grace. Decoteau’s  many achievements continue to be recognized and remembered to this day.  He has been inducted into the Edmonton City Police Hall of Fame,  the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame  and the Saskatchewan First Nations Sport Hall of Fame. He was also named  one of the 100 Edmontonians of the Century as part of that city’s  centennial celebrations being held this year.

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