Citizens, Law Enforcement and the State 1836-1945

The concept of public policing on which the current system of law enforcement in Canada is based was imported from England and introduced into Upper Canada in the 1830s. The theory underlying public policing is that the police act and carry out their duties on behalf of citizens in the community. As democratic practices and universal suffrage became more widespread, this assumption grew into the principle that enforcement of Canada's laws is ultimately the responsibility of every citizen. It follows that citizens and the police have the same fundamental goal prevention of crime and the maintenance of public order.

The practice of public policing during this period had little resemblance to the theory. In the Niagara district of Ontario, for example, the key officials of the justice system (judges, sheriffs, and magistrates), appointed directly by the lieutenant governor, were in every sense royal officials accountable only to the Crown's representative and not directly responsible to the people (Murray 23). Indeed, it was impossible to distinguish between judicial functions and the regulation of municipal affairs: justices were in fact "Rulers of the District"! (Murray 27). Constables in turn functioned entirely at the discretion of the local magistrate (Murray 64-65).

This experiment to have the police accountable to the citizens was introduced at a time of great political uncertainty in early Canada. The colonies were moving towards responsible government - the process of ensuring that the elected government is responsible to the representatives of the people - while authorities were simultaneously trying to deal with political unrest and suppress rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada. The Rebellions of Lower and Upper Canada were, respectively, expressions of French Canadian nationalism and economic dissatisfaction. They were opposed by special interest groups, members of which had the power to vote since they owned property. And since the concept of public policing was not yet well developed, responsibility for public order fell on the shoulders of the military or militia. As a result, policing and the maintenance of public order for the next century became closely allied with the operation of the state and with special interest groups such as property owners (Canadian Encyclopedia 1979-1980).

This close association of the police and the state was paramount as Canada moved toward greater independence internally, in managing its domestic affairs, and externally, in terms of its independence from Britain. The police played an active part in maintaining law and order during the incorporation of other provinces beginning with Manitoba and British Columbia. They fought during the North-West Rebellion (Knapfla) and arrested "dangerous aliens" during World War I. Implementing government policy, the police led the "war on drugs" in the 1920s and 1930s that was inspired by racist discourses against Asian-Canadians (Hewitt), dispersed unemployed demonstrators in the Thirties, and tracked down threats to national security during the Second World War. From a police perspective, they were doing their duty - preserving the peace, enforcing the new criminal code and other rules authorized by Parliament, and establishing a sense of harmony in a relatively new society. From the perspective of many citizens, police were shirking their responsibilities to their communities, namely, to ensure that all citizens were guaranteed equality before the law.