One hundred and three years ago, Alex Decoteau made Canadian policing history.
The young Métis man from Saskatchewan moved to Edmonton in 1909 to work in his brother-in-law's machine shop. Two years later, Decoteau joined the Edmonton Police Service , becoming the first aboriginal police officer in Canada.
Now, Decoteau's life story is the subject of Legacy of Heroes, an online digital comic book written and illustrated by members of the Edmonton Police Service (EPS).
Sharing the past
"Our overall goal for the comic book is to chronicle people and events from the service's past, and share those stories with the community," says Michael James, a supervisor with the EPS Corporate Communications Branch. "We take great pride in our history. We want Edmontonians to be aware of the amazing things the EPS has achieved."
James believes positive stories about police officers will inspire future generations to consider a career in law enforcement.
The inaugural issue of Legacy of Heroes was released in March on the EPS website and Facebook page following two months of intensive work by writer Jeff Awid and illustrator Jared Robinson.
"I originally started researching Alex's life for a documentary film I wanted to produce," Awid recalls.
The documentary failed to materialize, but the facts of Alex's life stayed with Awid.
Awid and Robinson are civilian employees with the EPS Digital Media Unit. The majority of their time is spent producing training and informational videos for the internal and external EPS websites, along with public education campaigns for television.
Legacy of Heroes is their first comic book.
"Jeff and I had just finished a creatively taxing video series, and were looking for a different sort of challenge," Robinson says. "We wanted to try something new — something we had never done before."
As a long-time fan of heroes like Spiderman and Batman, Awid approached Robinson with the idea of making a comic book about the EPS. The current popularity of comic books and graphic novels in print, online and at the movies also played a role in their decision to create a comic book, Awid explains.
"We tossed around a bunch of concepts," he says. "We even created a fictional squad of police officers and devised stories for them."
It was harder than it looked and just as the project threatened to stall, Awid remembered his aborted documentary about Alex Decoteau. The true story of Canada's first aboriginal police officer seemed ready-made for a comic book.
Teaching the past
"Once we settled on Alex's story, everything began to fall into place," Robinson says. They made the decision to target the comic book at elementary school age children. By ensuring the historical accuracy of the story, and including a series of discussion questions related to subjects as diverse as residential schools, the Olympic Games and the First World War, Awid and Robinson were able to create an entertaining and informative teaching tool.
"A lot of kids find history boring. But put it in a comic book with colourful illustrations and all of a sudden, history is interesting," Awid says.
Insp. Dan Jones, who oversees the EPS Aboriginal Relations Unit, believes Decoteau's story has important lessons for children and adults alike.
"Alex's life is about perseverance triumphing over adversity," he says. "His father was murdered when Alex was three years old. His mother couldn't afford to take care of the kids on her own. Alex and his siblings were sent to a residential school where they spent their youth. Most people would give up. Not Alex."
His story further demonstrates to young people that they can pursue any career they wish, including police work, no matter what challenges they face in life.
Hero in the making
"The comic's overall theme is Alex's passion for running," Awid says. "Everything positive in Alex's life stemmed from his ability as a runner."
By the time he turned 18, Decoteau was winning every race he entered. "He was very well known in Alberta and Saskatchewan," Izola Mottershead, Alex's niece, says. "People came from all over to see Alex run."
When he moved to Edmonton, Decoteau joined the Edmonton Irish Canadian Athletic Association. It was here that he first came in contact with members of the Edmonton Police Department.
Impressed by his athletic prowess and likability, the officers encouraged Decoteau to apply for a job as a police officer.
"With every issue of Legacy of Heroes, we hope to give readers a broader sense of what was happening in the world at that time and the impact it had on individuals like Alex," says Awid.
Decoteau served with the Edmonton Police Department from 1911 to 1916. During that period, he was a member of Canada's Olympic team and competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Shortly after the start of the First World War, Decoteau left the police to join the Canadian military.
Pen to computer
Awid wrote the first draft of the script in a couple of days. He used historical documents and family memorabilia for information and inspiration. "Many of Alex's personal items are on display in the atrium of Police Headquarters. Walking past them every day was a constant reminder to me that Alex was a real person, and we had a duty to tell his story accurately."
For Robinson, illustrating events that occurred 100 years ago was a unique challenge. "When I'm painting or drawing, I tend to let my imagination run wild. In this case, because we were portraying a real person and real events, I had to keep my artwork more realistic."
To help ensure the accuracy of his artwork, Robinson poured over family photographs of Alex as well as pictures of Edmonton from the early part of the 20th Century.
The creative duo spent two months working on the comic book before they presented it to their supervisor, Michael James.
James immediately saw the public relations potential in Legacy of Heroes.
"All too often the stories you read about police are negative," James says. "The comic is an attempt to counteract that negativity and, at the same time, educate the public about the Edmonton Police Service."
Legacy of Heroes was launched online in March 2014. A special print edition was also distributed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Edmonton. "The Commission had never heard of Alex before this," says Jones, who acted as a liaison between the EPS and TRC.
The Commission asked to distribute the comic book to students attending the first day of the event. "We printed 3,000 copies to hand out," Jones says. "The response was so positive we had to print another 5,000 copies to meet the demand from educators and schools."
The online response to Legacy of Heroes was equally positive. More than 1,600 people from across Canada and as far away as Hong Kong and Australia have read the comic book on the EPS website. Another 3,000 people learned about the comic through a post on the service's Facebook page.
The Edmonton Journal ran a front-page story about Legacy of Heroes. This piqued the interest of other media, including Global News, CBC, CTV and APTN. Each network ran a story about the comic during their six o'clock newscasts.
"The response from the media and public proved to us that the history of the EPS is important to the public," James says. "We weren't sure what to expect. Getting such positive feedback to a new initiative like this was inspiring."
Work has already begun on the second issue of Legacy of Heroes. This time Awid and Robinson are turning their attention to the sky, and the first airplane used by the Edmonton Police Service in pursuit of a criminal.
The service is also looking at other ways comics can be used to share information with the public, including non-English speaking citizens.
James says the comic book format is "so versatile. It's another tool we can use to engage with the community."
For more information: www.edmontonpolice.ca