Democratic Control of the Police in Canada

Civilian review and oversight has evolved slowly and gradually in Canada, beginning about twenty years after its initial development in Britain and the United States at the end of World War II (Goldsmith "External Review", Goldsmith and Lewis Civilian Oversight, Susan Watt). What brought this issue to the attention of the Canadian public was a series of commissions and inquiries investigating police conduct - in Saskatchewan (1965), Ontario (1970, 1972, 1975 and 1976), and Quebec (1977) (Ian Jeffrey Ross 240). The first legislation to more strictly regulate police practices was introduced in Ontario in 1977 but it did not advance beyond third reading in the Ontario Legislature. Three years later the first article on police complaints was published in a Canadian police college journal (Rene).

Civilian review in a formal sense commenced in 1981 when the Office of Public Complaints was established in Ontario. In the decade following Manitoba, the R.C.M.P, the city of Toronto, British Columbia, and Quebec introduced some form of civilian review and eventually other jurisdictions have followed suit (SusanWatt).

Two issues dominated discussions on civilian review from the beginning - race relations and the use of excessive force and they continue to persist as fundamental problems.


Allegations of police racial bias are commonly traced to the 1970s (Wortley Civilian Governance 1), coinciding with, if not resulting from, increased rates of immigration and public concern about police conduct regarding visible minorities. Racial issues in Canada, however, are deeper, larger, more complex, and extend far beyond confrontations between police officers and citizens during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The term "race" has been interpreted many different ways during the last five centuries. Around 1900, "race" was redefined once again as it became the integral part of various contemporary pseudo-scientific theories such as Social Darwinism, phrenology, and eugenics. The Social Darwinists promoted the idea that "races," represented by white Protestant Europeans, evolved much further and faster and were able to adapt better than other races. Phrenologists performed "head readings" and character analyses of people from different "races." The eugenicists championed sterilization programs for those of "inferior races." Each of these perspectives became aspects of public policy and popular belief in Canada during the first half of the twentieth century.

Despite European attitudes toward First Nations people and the presence of slavery during the colonial years, Canadians have tended to see themselves as "raceless." Race for the most part has never been a recognized legal category of classification in this country. Although there were numerous statutes on the books drawing all sorts of racial distinctions, none used the words "race" or "racial" in their titles. Canadian law, in most respects, has basically been silent with respect to race. Thus, many Canadians may find it difficult to accept that their legal system has established and enforced racial inequality for many years (Backhouse 13-15). Those who are not convinced will want to read Constance Backhouse's book, Colour-Codes; A Legal History of Racism in Canada 1900-1950. She describes in some detail six cases involving blatant racism: the legal prohibition of First Nations dance (1903), the denial of fishing rights of First Nations people in Lake Ontario (1921), a Saskatchewan law prohibiting Asians from employing white women in restaurants (1924), Ku Klux Klan interference in an "inter-racial" relationship in Ontario (1930), Eskimos being legally defined as Indians (1939), and a Halifax woman prohibited from sitting on the main floor of a movie theatre (1946).