Understanding the Data: Historical and Contemporary Context of Policing, Colonialism and Discrimination
The Tracking (In)Justice data set aims to document police-involved deaths in Canada. But the goal isn’t just to track numbers – it is to take the numbers to help us understand more about policing, use of force, discrimination, and the criminal justice system in Canada. In order to do that, the data that flows from the project needs to be situated within a broader context, including the contemporary and historical context of policing, discrimination and colonialism.
To help get people oriented to this background we’ve created this very short primer on Canadian policing and the historical and contemporary systems of discrimination and colonialism. We hope that this information will help contextualize the data and analysis on the rest of the website.
1. Policing in Canada
The number of police officers in Canada has increased, keeping pace with national population growth. Between 2000 and 2020 the number of police officers per 100,000 population increased 0.7 percent. During the same time, criminal code incidents per police officer decreased dramatically – from 41.7 incidents per officer in 2000 to 32.1 in 2019 (Statistics Canada 2020a).
The decrease in criminal code incidents, however, doesn’t paint a complete picture of contemporary policing activities. Although the data is limited, several studies indicate that the majority of police time is occupied responding to non-criminal incidents. A 2018 study, for example, found that up to 80 percent of police calls for service are not related to a criminal offence (Conor 2018). Similarly, pilot project data in Saskatchewan revealed that less than 20 percent of calls for service are in relation to a criminal matter, and that just over 30 percent of officer time is dedicated toward matters regarding criminal violations (Mazowita and Rotenberg, 2019).
Policing organizations have consistently reported that the demand for police to respond to non-criminal incidents has increased over the past few decades. Between March 2019 and July 2021, the rates of police service calls relative to mental-health related and suicide service calls has gradually increased, with an average of over 10 percent of total calls during that time (Statistics Canada 2021). And data exploring police calls for service during the Spring of 2020, the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, noted an increase in non-criminal related calls associated with general wellbeing (welfare) checks, domestic disturbances, and mental health-related emotional crises (Statistics Canada 2020b).
2. Discrimination, colonialism, and the criminal justice system
These numbers, these deaths, must be situated in a context of systemic discrimination within the criminal justice system. Injustice embedded within and perpetrated by the criminal justice system itself must also be situated within the broader reality of the settler colonial history of Canada. Canada’s history of colonization, slavery, exclusion, and racism, and the historic establishment and deployment of policing forces to enforce White settler order, feeds directly into present-day realities of racial injustice and the disproportionate deaths experienced by racialized and marginalized peoples at the hands of police.
The history – colonialism, racial discrimination and slavery
Although Canada is a relatively young country, it has a long history of racism embedded within structures of colonialism, settlement, slavery, and exclusion.
Indigenous peoples have been subjected to a sustained campaign of oppression and cultural genocide involving the systematic confiscation of Indigenous lands, subjugation of Indigenous legal orders, and devastating, corrosive policy measures such as the residential school system. Policing and other institutions of criminal justice have been pivotal in the settler colonial project of removing Indigenous peoples from their lands, containing them on small patchworks of their traditional territories, and suppressing Indigenous dissent.
In the formative decades that European settlers attempted to consolidate control over Indigenous populations, lands, and resources, black people were held in bondage in Canada. During the era of slavery in Canada, which lasted for over 200 years, the domination and subjugation of Black people was predicated on the threat and use of violence, deprivation, surveillance, and corporal punishment (Maynard 2017, 18-19). To justify and legitimate these brutal practices, Black people were systematically dehumanized and associated with barbarity and violence. Both the practices of slavery and the characterizations of Black people as threatening and violent set the stage for the continued dehumanization of Black people in the post-slavery period (Owusu-Bempah and Gabbidon 2020; Maynard 2017). The formation and evolution of Canada’s criminal justice system and the institutions of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous policing are rooted in slavery and colonialism. Yet, as Canada developed as a country, other racialized populations also became an increased focus for the majority public’s understanding of ‘criminality’ (Owusu-Bempah and Gabbidon 2020).
This broader history of colonialism and discrimination is reflected in the history of Canadian policing. Indigenous peoples, for example, were an initial focal point in Canadian policing, its practices shaped by processes of colonization. As the coercive arm of colonial policy, the North West Mounted Police (predecessor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) were instrumental in displacing and containing Indigenous peoples in the West to open the land for settlement and Canadian expansion. The institutional origins of policing in Canada were informed by a civilizing mission and infused with a sense of racial superiority that associated Indigenous peoples with crime, deviance, and dissent (Bell and Schreiner 2018; Monaghan 2013; Nettelbeck and Smandych 2010).
Discrimination and Colonialism in Contemporary Canadian Policing
In contemporary Canadian society a number of historically disadvantaged communities – including Black and other racialized communities, Indigenous persons, those with precarious housing, people with mental health issues, drug users, migrants, youth, members of the LGBTQ2S community – are disproportionately the targets of police surveillance, use of force, detentions, searches, criminal charges and incarceration. The disproportionate impact of policing can be particularly pronounced for those individuals who identify as a member of more than one of these communities, including Black, racialized and Indigenous individuals who are young, experiencing mental illness, or underhoused.
This contemporary landscape is a direct reflection of Canada’s history of colonialism, racial discrimination, and other discriminatory legacies. Below we summarize some of the contemporary evidence on discrimination in policing in relation to race, Indigeneity, and mental health.
Crime is not a race-neutral category and policing is not a race-neutral practice (Maynard 2017, 86). The Canadian population consistently associates racialized populations with criminality, despite statistics offering contrary evidence (Owusu-Bempah and Gabbidon 2020). Likewise, policing institutions consistently reject assertions that racial bias and racial profiling inform their work, despite well-documented racial disparities in carding, over-policing, rates of arrests and charges laid, and time spent in custody.
Two decades of research has consistently found that Canadian police stop, search, and question Black Canadians at higher rates than members of other racial groups. The practice of “carding” – which is sometimes referred to as “street checks” – refers to an incident where a police officer randomly asks an individual for identifying information when the individual is not suspected of a crime nor is there reason to believe they possess any information about a crime (Tulloch 2018). Research shows that street checks and traffic stops disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and other racialized populations (Wortley 2019; Robertson, Khoo, and Song, 2020; Tulloch 2018). These trends persist when you factor out other individual characteristics that might lead to higher levels of police contact, including living in a high-crime community, age, gender, social class, victimization, illegal drug use, criminal history, or routine activities.
These racial profiling practices have been shown to have detrimental and adverse impacts on physical and mental health and well-being, and social and economic opportunities, in particular affecting youth (Ontario Human Rights Commission 2018; Tulloch 2018; Supreme Court of Canada 2019). Higher levels of police surveillance mean that Black people are much more likely to be arrested and charged with criminal offences as compared to White people and members of other racial groups who engage in the same behaviour.
The practices of racial profiling and over-policing of racialized populations coincide with the disproportionate levels of violence experienced by these populations at the hands of police. For example, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) (2018) interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service found that Black people are much more likely to have force used against them resulting in serious injury or death at significantly higher rates than individuals from other racial backgrounds. Data collected from Ontario’s Special Investigation Unit (SIU) – which is called to investigate policing incidents where a person was seriously injured or died – between 2013 and 2017 sheds further light on this. For example, while Black people made up 8.8 percent of Toronto’s population at that time, they accounted for 25.4 percent of SIU investigations; 28.8 percent of police use of force cases; 36 percent of police shootings; 61.5 percent of police use of force cases that resulted in civilian death; and 70 percent of police shootings that resulted in civilian death (OHRC 2018). Black people were also 11.3 times more likely than a White person to be involved in a police use of force case that resulted in civilian death, and 19.5 times more likely than a White person to be involved in a police shooting that resulted in civilian death (OHRC 2018). Racialized populations, especially Black and Indigenous populations, experience higher levels of police surveillance, are more likely to experience negative encounters with the criminal justice system, and are more likely to experience injury and death as a result of interactions with police than White populations.
Canada’s colonial past and present also has a direct impact on contemporary policing. Numerous public commissions and inquiries have recognized the systemic injustice experienced by Indigenous peoples within the criminal justice system, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) and Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). The Canadian Justice department has admitted that Indigenous peoples are both over-policed and under-policed, in that they are often targeted by police but also often neglected when assistance is needed (Government of Canada 2019). These dynamics are evidenced in various reports, including the Canadian Human Rights Commission (2016) documenting the negative experiences of Indigenous women and interactions with police, Human Rights Watch’s (2013) report of both police abuses against Indigenous women and girls as well as the widely perceived failure to protect them from violence. Elements of over-policing and under-policing were likewise documented in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019). The Ontario Human Rights Commission has also documented extensive racial profiling of racialized and Indigenous peoples who are also subjected to forms of over-policing including unwarranted surveillance, investigation and other forms of scrutiny, as well as punitive actions and heavy-handed treatment (OHRC 2017). The OHRC further notes that the racial profiling of Indigenous peoples must be understood within the context of colonization that included state-led efforts of forced assimilation and elimination of Indigenous cultures (OHRC 2017). Other commissions document specific examples of abuse suffered by Indigenous peoples at the hands of the police. These include the Commission on First Nations and Métis Peoples and Justice Reform (2004) in Saskatchewan that highlighted Indigenous freezing deaths as a result of police “starlight tours” and the Ipperwash Inquiry (Linden 2007) after Ontario Provincial Police officers used excessive violence against land defenders at the Camp Ipperwash land reclamation resulting in the death of Dudley George.
Similar trends of over-policing and under-policing also impact other marginalized populations. For example, people facing mental health crises are more likely to experience negative encounters with law enforcement (Wortley et al. 2021). Documentation by Canadian journalists has revealed that the majority of individuals that have died in police use-of-force incidents struggled with mental health issues. The CBC’s Deadly Force project confirmed that 70 percent struggled with mental health and/or substance abuse issues in Canada (2000-2017) (Nicholson and Marcoux 2018), and a recent investigation by Le Devoir revealed similar numbers in Quebec (70.4 percent of 81 people shot by police from 2000 to 2021) (Pineda and Vallet 2021). More detailed data exists related to the Toronto Police Service thanks to an independent inquiry. Toronto police receive around 30,000 calls for service per year for what they describe as “emotionally disturbed persons” (Toronto Police Service 2014). With almost one million calls for service per year, this percentage is low (at around three percent), yet resulting injuries and shooting deaths are disproportionately high (11 percent and 20 percent, respectively). Toronto police shot and killed 5 emotionally disturbed people from 2002-2012 out of 25 total shooting deaths, yet the independent review also noted that the total deaths of emotionally disturbed people during that time was 27, representing a much higher percentage of the total, even if police were not directly implicated in the death. Research, inquests, and studies indicate that higher levels of police violence results in part from the approach police take when responding to people struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse issues (Government of Ontario 2017; Toronto Police Service 2014). An entrenched police culture that emphasizes the assertion of control and forceful responses with non-compliance over de-escalation perpetuates a crisis whereby people in distress are likely to be met with police violence (OHRC 2014; Toronto Police Service 2014). Further, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has highlighted increased use of force for those struggling with mental health issues and intersections between race and Indigenous identity (OHRC 2018).
Finally, as noted at the outset of this section, individuals who identify as belonging to more than one of these groups can experience particularized forms of discrimination and disadvantage. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, for example, has written about the significant intersection between race and mental health when it comes to police use of force (OHRC 2014; OHRC 2018). Studies have also recognized that the combination of those experiencing mental health issues and homelessness are more likely to have interaction with police (Kouyoumdjian et al. 2019).
References Cited and Resources for further Reading and Reflection
Bell, Colleen, and Kendra Schreiner. 2018. “The International Relations of Police Power in Settler Colonialism: The “civilizing” mission of Canada’s mounties.” International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis 73, no. 1: 111-128.
Canadian Human Rights Commission. 2016. Honouring the Strength of Our Sisters: Increasing Access to Human Rights Justice For Indigenous Women and Girls. Summary Report of the 2013 and 2014 Aboriginal Women’s Roundtable Process.
Commission on First Nations and Métis Peoples and Justice Reform. 2004. Legacy of Hope: An Agenda for Change. Saskatoon, Sask: Commission on First Nations and Métis Peoples and Justice Reform.
Conor, Patricia. 2018. Police Resources in Canada, 2017. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada.
Government of Canada. 2019. Overrepresentation of Indigenous People in the Canadian Criminal Justice System: Causes and Responses. Department of Justice, Research and Statistics Division.
Government of Ontario. 2017. Office of the Chief Coroner, Verdict of Coroner’s Jury: Andrew Loku. Toronto, ON: Office of the Chief Coroner.
Human Rights Watch. 2013. Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.
Kouyoumdjian Fiona G., Ri Wang, Cilia Mejia-Lanchero, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Rosane Nisenbaum, Patricia O’Campo, Vicky Stergiopoulos, and Stephen W. Hwang. 2019. “Interactions between Police and Persons Who Experience Homelessness and Mental Illness in Toronto, Canada: Findings from a Prospective Study.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 64(10): 718-725.
Linden, Sidney B. 2007. Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry. Toronto: Ipperwash Inquiry.
Maynard, Robyn. 2017. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
Mazowita, Benjamin, and Cristine Rotenberg. 2019. The Canadian Police Performance Metrics Framework: Standardized indicators for police services in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada.
Monaghan, Jeffrey. 2013. “Settler governmentality and racializing surveillance in Canada’s north-west.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 38, no. 4: 487-508.
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 2019. Reclaiming Power and Place: Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Nettelbeck, Amanda, and Russell Smandych. 2010. “Policing Indigenous peoples on two colonial frontiers: Australia’s mounted police and Canada’s north-west mounted police.” Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 43, no. 2: 356-375.
Nicholson, Katie and Jacques Marcoux. 2018. Most Canadians killed in police encounters since 2000 had mental health or substance abuse issues. CBC News, April 4.
Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). 2014. Report of the Ontario Human Rights Commission on Police Use of Force and Mental Health.
OHRC. 2017. Under Suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario.
OHRC. 2018. A Collective Impact: Interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service.
Owusu-Bempah, Akwasi., and Shaun Gabbidon. 2020. Race, Ethnicity, Crime, and Justice: An International Dilemma. Routledge.
Pineda, Améli and Stéphanie Vallet. 2021. 81 Québécois tués par des policiers dans les 20 dernières années. Le Devoir, Nov. 22.
Robertson, Kate, Cynthia Khoo, and Yolanda Song. 2020. To Surveil and Predict: A Human Rights Analysis of Algorithmic Policing in Canada. Toronto: The Citizen Lab.
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). 1996. Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: Canada Communications Group.
Statistics Canada. 2020a. Table 35-10-0076-01 Police personnel and selected crime statistics.
Statistics Canada. 2020b. Police-reported crime incidents down during the early months of the pandemic, while domestic disturbance calls increase.
Statistics Canada. 2021. Table 35-10-0169-01 Selected police-reported crime and calls for service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supreme Court of Canada. 2019. R. v. Le. 2019 SCC 34, Case number 37971.
Toronto Police Service. 2014. Police Encounters with People in Crisis. An Independent Review Conducted by The Honourable Frank Iacobucci for Chief of Police William Blair, Toronto Police Service.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2015. Canada’s residential schools : the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Published for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Tulloch, Michael H. 2018. Report of the Independent Street Checks Review. Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
Wortley, Scot. 2019. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Street Checks Report. NS Human Rights Commission.
Wortley, Scot, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Erick Laming, Carae Henry. 2021. Police Use of Force in Canada: A Review of Data, Expert Opinion, and the International Research Literature. Canadian Criminal Justice Association.