Remembering Cst Wally White, Oshawa’s first Black cop

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Published February 15, 2022 at 4:55 pm

Constable Walford “Wally” White, Oshawa’s first Black police officer, is being remembered by Durham Regional Police as a “historic trailblazer” in the service this Black History Month.

Before White, born October 27, 1943, joined the Oshawa Police (one of the precursor forces to Durham police), he was a dock worker in Port Antonio, Jamaica.

According to Cst. White’s son Richard White (in a conversation with Sgt. Sean Samuels in a Together We Rise conversation from 2021), White had a “pretty good job” in Jamaica, “but he wanted to provide better opportunities to his family”

Some 50 years before his talk, Richard was around seven years old when Wally moved to Canada to secure those better opportunities for his wife and three children, with a plan for the family to follow him.

“He did pretty well in school. He thought he’d love to be a lawyer, but when he took a look at the amount of time it would that would be involved in actually becoming a lawyer he realized it would be too long to get us to Canada,” Richard said.

However, while living in Scarborough, White found an opportunity to join the Oshawa Police Department around 1970. Oshawa Police would not be amalgamated into Durham police until 1974.

“He took the job because he had decent pay and he’d be able to take care of a family,” Richard remembers his father telling him, “He’d be able to get us to Canada right away, so within a year, we were in Canada.”

Describing the different circumstances regarding race relations in the early Seventies, Richard says his father was given, “specific direction” from the staff sergeants as the only Black officer in a white community.

Cst White was told to be “extra judicious and careful about how you execute the law,” according to Richard. “When my dad mentioned it he seemed somewhat concerned that the staff sergeants thought it was necessary to explain it that way because my dad, he’s pretty sharp. He would have understood the dynamics.”

Richard heard this tale as a teenager and thought at the time, “how rude,” but looking back as an adult he realized, “that was very prudent.”

“It was very important the the relationship that my dad had with community, because he was going to be very visible, was good, to help other minorities and to help the police force.”

“He stood out obviously as the only Black police officer so when people met him they remembered him,” Richard said, “Also he was big. He was 5’11 probably about 250 pounds, wide shoulders, big arms.”

People often approach Richard and ask if he is related to White, illustrating the mark the constable left on the Durham community.

“He was pretty intimidating. Not because he was mean, just because he was a big guy. He was really friendly in dealing with people.”

Describing his father’s personality Richard said, “My dad was kind of a complicated guy, because he could be very happy, very cheerful and then not.”

“He loved to be singing songs a lot. He’d be singing around the house. He loved Neil Diamond. He loved Bob Marley. He loved everything….besides country-western,” Richard said.

“He’d be the life of the party,” Richard continued. “He did have difficulty sometimes with his temper from my perspective as a child. In fairness to my father he told me he was on his own since he was 12 years old, so a lot of things I thought he would have learned in a family, he didn’t have that opportunity.”

“[White] mentioned that his father was an alcoholic. Circumstances were essentially that he could not stay home. He had to leave. With all things considered, he did pretty good considering where he came from.”

By 1978, White was partnered with Alan Mack, who wrote on White’s obituary page, “Wally and I were partners. My last name is Mack and his was White. I called us the Mack and White Unit. We both laughed about that.”

In 1979 the Canadian Statesmen, a Clarington paper defunct since 2008, reported that Cst. White was injured in a car crash with a drunk driver on his way home from work. White broke his leg in the crash and required surgery the following morning.

Ted Dionne worked with White as well and relayed how White reacted to the high-stress situations police face. “I remember Wally and I were working together and a high speed chase happened south on Simcoe Street. I was driving and Wally took the radio.”

“He started talking in a heightened state reverting to his Jamaican accent. Communications kept saying ‘Repeat.’ Finally I said, ‘Wally sing it,’ and it worked,” Dionne continued, “He was a beautiful singer. Just prior to that he had a song for me which always brought me joy. A wonderful man, and always respected.”

By 1989, the Toronto Star reported White was one of five non-white officers on DRPS. The service had no policy on minority hiring at the time.

Richard shared White’s mindset for policing saying his father told him, “We’re paid to protect people who don’t want us there.”

“I think essentially what he was saying is the police and what they do is not fully understood by the public. The public doesn’t understand that police have to be there or society will be unsafe for everybody.”

Regarding the adversity White would have faced as the Oshawa first and then only Black officer,”I’m sure there would have been certain amount of name calling, but my dad had a really thick skin,” Richard said, “He would never have internalized it.”

If there had been any issues, Richard says given the lack of local news coverage of an incident in that time, his father handled them in a way that wasn’t detrimental to the department or to himself.

“Once the thought occurred to me that I’m always grateful [for being in Canada], but I never told my dad ‘Thank you,'” Richard reflected, “I picked up the phone and I said ‘Dad, remember when you said you came to Canada because you wanted to give us a better life’ he said ‘yes’ and I just said ‘Well just want to say thank you.’

Then my dad just went quiet and he was quiet for 15-20 seconds, like he was totally quiet and then he made a joke to break the ice. I think that it touched him that I recognized what he did for us.”

Cst Walford White died in 2016 at 72, having long since retired from the police. He was survived by his wife, five children, 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

His obituary read: “When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.”

All photos via Durham police.

 

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