Dismantling Systemic Racism in Policing

Systemic Racism in Criminal Justice

Systemic racism, anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism pervade our institutions. In a 2017 Report, a United Nations Working Group wrote:

Despite the reputation for promoting multiculturalism and diversity … the Working Group is deeply concerned by the structural racism that lies at the core of many Canadian institutions and the systemic anti-Black racism that continues to have a negative impact on the human rights situation of [Black] Canadians.[1]

The systemic racism that the UN described is perhaps most on display within our criminal justice system:

The Working Group is particularly concerned about the overrepresentation of [Black] Canadians in the criminal justice system, which may be attributed to racial bias at all levels of the system, from racial profiling to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, the imposition of pretrial incarceration and disparities in sentencing.

Regarding systemic racism in criminal justice, the Supreme Court of Canada has held that:

Racism, and in particular anti-Black racism, is a part of our community’s psyche. A significant segment of our community holds overtly racist views. A much larger segment subconsciously operates on the basis of negative racial stereotypes. Furthermore, our institutions, including the criminal justice system, reflect and perpetuate those negative stereotypes.[2]

Systemic Racism in Policing

While systemic racial discrimination within the police system is not new, the recent deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi only serve to highlight the longstanding disproportionately negative interactions of Black and Indigenous Peoples with Canadian police forces. Some of the most pernicious and persistent examples of systemic racism in the policing of Indigenous and Black Peoples are police use-of-force, street checks and the resistance to the collection of race-based data by police forces.

Racist and Excessive Police Use-of-Force

Black Canadians and Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately subject to police use-of-force. The United Nations has expressed concern over the “excessive use of force and killings by the police, especially in response to cases involving vulnerable people of African descent”.

In a 2018 investigation on the use of deadly force by police, the CBC reported that “when taking into account the racial and ethnic composition of the overall population, two distinct groups are overwhelmingly over-represented in [fatal police] encounters: black and Indigenous people.” [3] To paraphrase Scot Wortley, associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, the more serious the police conduct and lethal the outcome, the greater the overrepresentation of black and Indigenous Peoples.” [4]

While there are no provincial or national databases on the use-of-force of police on Black and Indigenous Peoples, here is what we know about police use-of-force from the work done by independent researchers:

  • Black Torontonians are 20x more likely to be shot by police than white residents [5]
  • From 2000-2017, Black Canadians were 36.5% of Toronto police fatalities despite being only 8.3% of residents [6]
  • In June 2020 alone, at least 3 People of Colour were killed by police who had been contacted to make a wellness check
  • Over 35% of the people killed by the RCMP from 2007-2017 were Indigenous, despite being less than 5% of the population [7]
  • From 2000-2017, 60% of the victims of fatal police incidents in Manitoba were Indigenous,[8] despite being only 5% of the population [9]
  • In Saskatchewan, Indigenous peoples are 15% of the population but represent 62% of deaths by police [10]
  • In Winnipeg, Indigenous people represent 10.6% of the population, but account for nearly two thirds of fatal police shooting victims. [11]

The use-of-force by police is also accompanied by an alarming lack of accountability. The UN Report noted “a disturbing pattern of impunity for police violence.” Between 2000-2017, of the 461 cases involving a fatal police encounter, the CBC could only identify 18 cases where criminal charges were laid against an officer and only two convictions. [12]

No Database Tracking Race-Based Police Use-of-force

We simply do not know the extent of police use-of-force and fatal police incidents in Canada, as no level of government systematically collects that information. Police departments do not release detailed statistics about use-of-force incidents, and when such data is sporadically released, it does not contain information on race, ethnic background and other identities.

The United Nations expressed concern “that no race-based statistics on fatal police incidents are kept by Ontario’s police watchdog or Statistics Canada, the Toronto police or the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Statistics Canada Centre for Justice Statistics only tracks fatal police shootings if an officer is criminally charged and does not keep statistics on race.”

While independent research sheds some light on police use-of-force, until the provinces and federal government begin to systematically collect race-based statistics on police use-of-force and fatal police incidents, we remain largely in the dark regarding the scale and trends.

Racial Profiling and Over-policing

The United Nations reports that “racial profiling is endemic in the strategies and practices used by [Canadian] law enforcement.” Street Checks, often referred to as “carding”, is the police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting people suspected of a crime. The practice of street checks has been proven to disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous Peoples in Canada. For instance, in 2015, the Toronto Star reported that Black people in the Peel Region were three times more likely to be stopped by the police and represented 21% of all street checks, even though they were only 9% of the population.[13] A 2017 survey of the Greater Toronto Area’s Black community found that 79% of young Black men reported having been stopped by the police in public spaces.[14]

A 2018 Report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission noted “a lack of legal basis for police stopping or detaining Black civilians in the first place; inappropriate or unjustified searches during encounters; and unnecessary charges or arrests.”[15] Despite the recognised racial bias in the use of street checks, they continue to be used in many Canadian jurisdictions.

Street checks have a very damaging and lasting impact on Black and Indigenous Peoples. In his 2018 Report on Independent Street Checks, Justice Tulloch of the Ontario Court of Appeal, notes that “The stakes are very high for members of racialized groups when it comes to “random” police checks because those checks can impact their lives in many ways, including their educational and employment opportunities.”[16]

Where we go from here: reforming Canada’s police services

As global unrest heightens, we find ourselves at a crossroads between maintaining flawed systems or moving towards a New Normal. Perhaps nowhere is the choice clearer than in the case of police reform. Over-investment in policing, the over-policing of Black, Indigenous Peoples and People of Colour (BIPOC), and the lack of accountability within the overall policing system, must be corrected.

While there is no singular catch-all solution to the systematic oppression that BIPOC face, there must be a profound change within the system. And even though we must seek action on an urgent basis, we must also recognise any actions taken now are only the first steps on a long road towards the elimination of the racism that is deeply embedded in our institutions. To ensure that we can move forward in an equitable fashion, reformative steps with a focus on community control, significant divestment from police services, and police accountability must be taken.

We are calling on the federal and provincial governments to: REDUCE, REALLOCATE, RECORD, REVIEW


In many municipalities, police services represent the largest expense. In 2017/2018, operating expenditures for policing reached $15.1 billion.[17] Between 2000 and 2018, the amount expended on police services has increased by over 37%.[18] In 2020, the RCMP have been allocated a roughly $3.5 billion budget.[19] In Vancouver, the police budget has grown by more than $100 million in the last decade and represents about one-fifth of the city’s $1.6 billion 2020 operating budget.[20]

The proportion of municipal budgets that is spent on policing has significantly outpaced investment in social and community services. For instance, in Toronto, since 2013, the police budget has increased by 19.4% - it is now over $1.1 billion dollars - while the city's investments in social services have only increased by 13%.[21]

Calls for reductions in police spending have grown dramatically - motions have been put forward in Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton and other Canadian municipalities - with the money being redirected to under-funded social and community services, or towards the creation of new types of emergency services. In order to move forward, these calls must be met, and significant divestment must take place.

REALLOCATE: investing divested police services funds into community and social services

Defunding is not only a reduction in police funding, but also "a reallocation or a reassignment of certain tasks and functions that we recognize that the police aren't performing very well, [with] negative outcomes to their involvement in those activities such as increased risk for the use of violence and potential for criminalization"[22]

Example of Activity to Eliminate: Ending Police Street Checks

Street checks were recently banned in Nova Scotia, after a 2019 report on racial profiling by Halifax-area police found that Black people were six times more likely to be street checked than white people.[23] In Vancouver, the mayor has announced his intention to introduce a motion to ask the city's police board to end street checks after it was reported that 15% of those carded between 2008 and 2017 were Indigenous, despite making up just 2% of the general population, and that 4% of those carded were Black, despite making up less than 1% of Vancouver residents.[24]

The UN Working Group recommends “that the practice of carding, or street checks, and all other forms of racial profiling be discontinued and that the practice of racial profiling be investigated and the perpetrators sanctioned.” We support the recommendation to eliminate police checks and call for its immediate national implementation.

Police activities which should no longer receive funding, and which should be reallocated to existing or new agencies, include but are not limited to:

  • Policing of schools through school resources officers
  • Policing of public transportation
  • Policing of drug usage
  • Policing of poverty-related charges (sleeping outside, loitering, etc.)
  • Policing of minor bylaw infractions and noise complaints
  • Policing of non-violent domestic and mental health related calls
Example of Reallocation: A New First Responders Unit for Mental Health

The deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Ejaz Choudry, Rodney Levi, and D’Andre Campbell, as well as the recent assault on Mona Wang all illustrate the same point: police have little place in treating mental health. Many of these tragedies began with a 911 call for help and assistance and ended with loss of life.

The United Nations recommends that the government “[e]nsure that a psychiatrist or psychologist accompany police officers when responding to mental health calls.”[25] The CAMH, Canada’s largest mental health hospital, has gone further, calling for “a new way forward” and insisting that “[p]olice should not be the first responders when people are in crisis in the community” as “[they] are not trained in crisis care and should not be expected to lead this important work.”[26] CAMH recommends investing in community mental health and intervening earlier to prevent an incident from escalating.

Using former police-funding, a new first responders’ unit should be formed, with the primary focus on responding to domestic and mental health related calls.

REVIEW: Community oversight of police services

There must be community oversight of policing. When an incident of potential police misconduct takes place, it is often the police forces themselves that are mandated to investigate the circumstances and to hold themselves accountable. As illustrated by RCMP Commissioner Lucki’s struggle to define systemic racism,[27] and the Montreal police union president’s unwillingness to acknowledge systemic racism’s existence in the force,[28] the police system cannot and should not be entrusted to regulate and investigate itself. There is a necessity for communities to have their voices heard on matters of policing.

Community oversight can be implemented through the formation of community-elected Accountability Councils. These Councils would be responsible for: 

  • Ensuring that all police officers have operational and operating bodycams, with heavy penalties associated if that is not the case 
  • Ensuring that all police officers record all incidents involving the public, whether the incident involved the use-of-force or not
  • Ensuring that the police in the precinct are well and equitably trained, and representative of the demography of the community    
  • The implementation of community-led police hiring, integration, and punitive actions for misconduct   
  • The implementation of community-specific training initiatives

RECORD: creating a national database to record police use-of-force and other incidents

We need a national database to track victims of incidents of use-of-force by police, identifying race, ethnic background and other identities - as recommended by the United Nations - so that we can fully understand the extent of systemic racism in Canadian policing. Data allows for accountability, as well as for tracking patterns and identifying trends in police use-of-force. It will also permit for the evaluation of the success of anti-discrimination and anti-racism initiatives within police forces. The UN Working Group recommends “a nation-wide mandatory policy on the collection of data disaggregated by race, colour, ethnic background, national origin and other identities be implemented to determine if and where racial disparities exist for African Canadians.”

Each province should establish provincial standards for the collection of data by all their police forces, even if no formal complaint is made. In Ontario, initiatives are underway to correct the lack of data. As of April 2020, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which probes public complaints against police and has the power to conduct reviews of systemic problems in policing, began to collect data on the Indigenous identity, race, religion and ethnic origin of members of the public who make a complaint.[29] The Toronto Police Services Board instructed Toronto Police to establish a procedure for collecting, analyzing and publicly reporting race-based data, with a goal of rolling out a first phase — focused on use-of-force reports — by this January.[30] And beginning in October 2020, the Ontario Special Investigations Unit will start collecting data on the race, ethnicity, religion and Indigenous identity of complainants and officers who are the subject of its investigations.[31]

We have called for the creation of a National Police Use-of-Force Database as a critical first step : ADD YOUR NAME

REDUCE, REALLOCATE, RECORD, REVIEW : the road to dismantling systemic racism in policing begins here.


[1] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada

[2] R v S (RD), [1997] 3 SCR 484 [S (RD)]; see also R v Spence, [2005] 3 SCR 458 [Spence], at para 32.

[3] https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform-custom/deadly-force

[4] Scot Wortley, associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto and author of Ontario Human Rights Commission Interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/public-interest-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-discrimination-toronto-police-service/collective-impact-interim-report-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-racial-discrimination-black

[5] http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/public-interest-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-discrimination-toronto-police-service/collective-impact-interim-report-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-racial-discrimination-black#Executive%20summary

[6] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/police-deaths-blacks-data-1.4599215

[7] 2017 briefing note from acting RCMP commissioner Dan Durbeau to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale via https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-more-than-one-third-of-people-shot-to-death-over-a-decade-by-rcmp/


[9] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-656-x/89-656-x2016008-eng.htm

[10] https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform-custom/deadly-force

[11] ibid

[12] https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform-custom/deadly-force

[13] https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/09/24/blacks-three-times-more-likely-to-be-carded-by-peel-police-than-whites.html

[14] http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/3897161/Black-Experience-Project.pdf

[15] http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/public-interest-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-discrimination-toronto-police-service/collective-impact-interim-report-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-racial-discrimination-black

[16] Ibid

[17] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2019001/article/00015-eng.htm

[18] Ibid (adjusted for inflation)

[19] Ibid

[20] https://vancouver.ca/your-government/annual-budget.aspx

[21] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-city-council-defund-police-1.5630983

[22] University of Toronto Mississauga sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/what-defunding-the-police-could-look-like-in-canada-s-largest-city-1.4977969

[23] https://humanrights.novascotia.ca/sites/default/files/editor-uploads/halifax_street_checks_report_march_2019_0.pdf

[24] https://bc.ctvnews.ca/citing-overrepresentation-of-indigenous-black-people-vancouver-s-mayor-calls-for-end-to-street-checks-1.4995346?cache=yes%3FclipId%3D104056%3FclipId%3D89530

[25] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada

[26] https://www.camh.ca/en/camh-news-and-stories/camh-statement-on-police-interactions-with-people-in-mental-health-crisis

[27] https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/asked-about-systemic-racism-in-rcmp-lucki-discusses-different-heights-of-officers-1.4998165

[28] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-police-release-letter-denouncing-brotherhood-president-comments-1.5630427

[29] https://www.oiprd.on.ca/oiprd-begins-to-collect-race-based-data-under-the-anti-racism-act-2017/

[30] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-police-race-data-1.5290420

[31] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/siu-race-based-data-1.5606505?fbclid=IwAR0GgMpxh-t4mNTF8rozNHzDg4KEnT7_sp6MTqAJ8-PjG2O2n5HLWuX-u3c

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