Ted Upshaw is gigantic. At six-foot-six, the 60-year-old towers over the average person. But his sunny disposition is more reminiscent of the Big Friendly Giant than the “fee-fi-fo-fum” variety.
Robert Graham (Ted) Upshaw became the first African-Canadian to be a commissioned inspector by the RCMP in 1999. Now working as a public safety advisor with HRM, he’s hoping to inspire young minds and build back some trust between police and the Black community.
Born and raised in Three Mile Plains in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Upshaw joined the RCMP because he wanted to work with youth,
like the police did when he was younger.
“I’d be playing basketball at the gym after school and a couple of coppers will come in and play,” he explains. “And it wasn’t ‘this cop’ and ‘this guy.’ It was Ted and Gary, and we had conversations. So I knew that was my interest.”
Upshaw joined the RCMP in 1981, at the age of 24. Despite his professional accomplishments, Upshaw also had to deal with racism from both the public and other police officers. He was the only African Canadian in his troop while he was in training. He remembers a time when a drill corporal came by for inspections and looked down the barrel of his gun.
“His comment to me was, ‘Upshaw, I don’t see any watermelon seeds down there,’” he says. “I didn’t want to be kicked out of depot because I wanted the job, so you just stand there and take it, and you move on because these things were expected at that time. It really makes you feel helpless.”
The reasoning, supposedly, for such comments was to teach troops to be “strong and prepared” for the streets, says Upshaw. However, his own colleagues would also use racial slurs beyond his training days.
“It was my first posting to Sidney, BC,” he explains. “The RCMP just got introduced to nightsticks, so we were talking about those, and an officer called them N****r Beaters. That’s the kind of thing that you would run into. People who were ignorant, who didn’t care, or didn’t know.”
Sergeant Craig Smith met Upshaw when he joined the RCMP in 1996. As the author of You Had Better Be White by Six AM
, Smith has documented the struggles of African Canadians in Canada’s national police service. The title of his book is a direct quote spoken to Hartley Gosline, who in 1969 became the first ever African Canadian to become an RCMP member.
Smith says he wrote the book to remind people that subtle racism still exists in the force and in the province.
“I don’t know any Black member in Nova Scotia that hasn’t been called the n-word at one time during their career,” Smith says. “Colour tends to be that one thing that people throw at you when they’re at their worst, and we, by nature of our job, deal with a lot of people at their worst.”
Prior to joining the RCMP, Upshaw’s relationship with police was a positive one, but he knows many in the Black community are still apprehensive. According to the Halifax Regional Police, between 2005 and 2016, Black Haligonians were three times more likely to be stopped for a street check, compared to white Haligonians. Black Haligonians were disproportionately over-represented in those stats, making up 20.48 percent of recorded police checks, despite being only 3.59 percent of HRM’s population.
Upshaw retired from the RCMP in 2009, but he says the police still have a lot of work to do to strengthen their relationship with the Black community.
“I think they’re willing to stand up and address this issue,” he says. “I also work from this office and hope to understand why those numbers are like that—it may be racism, discrimination or something else. I’m not going to change the world, but if I can ask questions at the right level, then I think it’s something.”
Smith says Upshaw’s achievements are an example of progress being made within the RCMP, and his dedication to the community will be his legacy.
“He’s carried the banner for Black folks high and proud,” Smith says. “Because of him, there are doors that are open, and folks that are in there that look like me. I’ve learned that there’s a lot more for me to accomplish.”
Aside from the day he married his wife, Karen, Upshaw says the most memorable day of his life was becoming a commissioned
“It really didn’t hit me until the actual celebration at the Black Cultural Centre,” he says. “I never thought about it as me being the first Black anything. I just thought of it as my hard work paying off. There were talks about how this has impacted the community, and when I looked at all those folks, it was really hitting home.”
He hopes his legacy will encourage young people to persevere and stay focused in the face of adversity.
“We need to celebrate our successes, look back on our struggles and recognize
how to improve,” he says. “There’s always going to be challenges
, but I think with the right attitude and desire for success, we can overcome.”