Revisiting Prince George's crime history

When the quest for so-called civic respectability in the early settlement days of what is now Prince George clashed with the reality in the townsites, a reputation was born. History Professor Dr. Jonathan Swainger examines this dichotomy in his new book The Notorious Georges: Crime and Community in British Columbia’s Northern Interior, 1909-25.

November 9, 2023
Dr. Jonathan Swainger portrait photo.
History Professor Dr. Jonathan Swainger is out with a new book, The Notorious Georges, examining the history of crime in Prince George and its predecessor communities.

Since settlers began moving to the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako Rivers in the early 20th century, the community now known as Prince George developed a reputation as a rough and tumble town.

But is Prince George’s infamy as a crime capital deserved?

University of Northern British Columbia History Professor Dr. Jonathan Swainger attempts to answer that question in his new book The Notorious Georges, released this fall by UBC Press and the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.

Examining the crime history  of Fort George and South Fort George beginning in 1905 through the founding of Prince George in 1915 and continuing until 1925, Swainger finds the dreams of the so-called community leaders were at odds with reality in the townsites.

“Based on newspaper evidence, city hall council minutes, and the archival record — including daily police patrol reports from 1913 to 1921 — I identified a tension between the Georges’ white and self-appointed ‘respectable’ 'citizenry and how they wanted to be seen and how, from the Georges’ origins, the community was seen as a collection of drunken resource workers, prostitutes, transients associated with the railway project and the settlement frontier,” Swainger says. “This war of words between Fort George and South Fort George eventually appeared on a national stage thanks to the involvement of the Toronto Saturday Night Magazine and BC Saturday Sunset which took opposing sides in the contest and carried an arsenal of stories including exaggerated claims and charges flowing out of the Georges. The result was that without bothering to specify, the Georges were tarred with the same brush.”

Those early perceptions and stereotypes surrounding the Georges persisted, leaving an indelible mark on the community's reputation.

“The police records make it abundantly clear that there was no more crime, drunkenness, or violence in the Georges during those early years than one would find anywhere else in British Columbia,” Swainger says. “In fact, for the British Columbia Provincial Police, the Georges were fairly quiet.”

Quiet, but not without intrigue. 

In Notorious Georges, Swainger provides details of an anti-German riot in 1919, the “Chinese” affray (riot) on Quebec Street and the targeting of Prince George’s sparse Black community in April 1921, and allegations that a city councilor and member of the police commission, was running an illegal liquor ring in Prince George.

Swainger began researching the history of crime in northern B.C. during the 1990s while working at the Peace River-Liard campus in Fort St. John. One of his students at the time, Erin Payne, wrote a paper on alcohol and policing in Prince George and through his  research Swainger learned that Prince George had its own municipal police force between 1915 and 1925.

After being relocated to Prince George in 2000, Swainger began to dig deeper into the city’s history of policing. With the help of students in a fourth-year history seminar, Swainger began to compile a database of crime and policing news using the Prince George Public Library’s Prince George Newspaper Database.

“The students used specific search terms, found relevant articles that they summarized on a database entry form, sent me those forms and I linked it to a copy of the newspaper article,” Swainger says.  “Since the database entry forms were searchable, all the students in the class could use our expanding database to support their own in-course research essays.”

Swainger also received research funding to hire an undergraduate student, Jillian Pearson, to transcribe the duty logs of the British Columbia Provincial Police. 

“The student contribution to this project, beginning with Erin Payne, and then several years of undergraduates in my History 458 class, and then finally with Jillian, has come full circle,” he says.

While the book focuses on the early 20th century, Swainger points out the historical context and decisions made during that period have a lasting impact on the present.

“Our current challenges with crime, sky-rocketing police budgets, disenchantment with policing culture are the result of decisions made and not made in the past,” Swainger says. “These issues did not ‘just appear’ out of nowhere. Tracing that line of decisions backward and understanding that they were all historical contingent, is a first step in altering our contemporary difficulties.”

The Notorious Georges—Crime and Community in British Columbia’s Northern Interior, 1909-25 is available at Books and Company in Prince George, the UNBC Bookstore as well as through UBC Press online.