Laws and policies regarding the use of force are shared by various levels of government in a federal democracy like Canada. Most police forces, with the exception of the RCMP, are established under provincial police legislation. The Criminal Code, on the other hand, is federal law that applies to all police forces in Canada. Because the Criminal Code contains sections governing the use of force by police, a substantial amount of case law has evolved from substantial judicial interpretation. Provincial policing statutes usually include detailed regulations that provide further elaboration on the use of force. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms establishes parameters regarding the use of force in two ways. It guarantees the right of everyone to not be deprived of "life, liberty or security of the person" (section 7) as well as permitting the courts to refuse evidence obtained when the rights of the accused are violated. From an international perspective, Canada is a signatory to the United Nations' Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. All of these components constitute the legal framework within which police operate with regard to using force (Stenning Police...and Human Rights).

Although most Canadians were likely unaware of the existing legal parameters placed on the police, public criticism of their actions regarding the use of force escalated in the 1970s and 1980s. In social and cultural terms, the Canadian public was broadening and raising its expectations and standards for police performance seeking new and less violent ways of enforcing the law. Individual citizens were similarly becoming more cognizant of their rights and less hesitant to lodge a complaint when they were being confronted by the police. Finally, media outlets in Canada were developing a more cosmopolitan approach to social issues and thus more willing to report on incidents such as citizen conflicts with the police.

Debate about police use of excessive force, like allegations of racial bias, has continued for the last three decades. Many investigations, studies, and reports have been conducted at the behest of citizen concerns. Numerous initiatives have been taken by police forces throughout Canada to temper criticisms that police officers are prone to using excessive force on numerous occasions.

The debate tends to focus on the following:

  • Supporters of strong law enforcement argue that force is necessary because the police are constantly challenged by criminals who use whatever means is available to them to achieve their ends. The police also have to deal with the violent and unpredictable behaviour of people in an altered state of mind resulting from drugs or mental illness.
  • Defenders argue that Police Acts, police service conduct regulations, internal police force scrutiny, and human rights legislation provide adequate checks on police power (Gregoire 44).