Police in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Police in Canada

The primary function of police is to preserve order (sometimes referred to as "keeping the peace") between people within a community. In Canada, the two main responsibilities of the police are to keep Canadians safe and to enforce the law. There are several different types of police in Canada. The RCMP enforces federal laws and provides policing services in all territories and most provinces. Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have provincial police forces. Most cities and many large towns have their own municipal police forces. Many First Nations also have their own police forces. In 2018, there were approximately 68,500 police officers serving in Canada, a rate of 185 officers for every 100,000 people.

Roles and Responsibilities of the Police

Police are responsible to keep Canadians safe and to enforce the law. This can be broken down into three main areas: crime prevention, investigations and emergency response.

Crime Prevention

Police spend much of their time preventing crime. This includes patrolling areas by car, on bikes, on horses and on foot to monitor public places, businesses and homes. Police also work with such organizations as Neighbourhood Watch and Block Parents and attend protests and special events to make sure that crowds stay safe and under control. Police also keep the public safe by enforcing speed limits and other laws.


Police also conduct investigations in order to protect Canadians and enforce the law. They investigate theft and financial crimes such as fraud and commercial scams. They also investigate cases involving kidnapping, murder and terrorism. This can include surveillance, gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses, writing reports and providing testimony in court.

Emergency Response

Police also respond to emergencies, including crimes, accidents and natural disasters. They are responsible for helping victims and providing first aid, arresting suspects and directing traffic.

Specially trained police officers are usually called in to deal with more complicated or dangerous situations. This includes subduing and disarming people with weapons and managing hostage situations. Specialists are also called in to handle or defuse bombs and other explosives.

Police Forces and Jurisdiction

Most policing in Canada is provided by the RCMP and municipal police forces. The RCMP enforces federal laws and provides policing services in all territories and most provinces (except Ontario and Quebec). Most cities and many large towns have their own municipal police forces, and many First Nations also have their own police forces.

Federal Police: RCMP

The federal police force, the RCMP, is the largest single force in the country. It enforces federal laws, investigates financial and organized crime, protects national security and ensures the safety of state officials and foreign dignitaries. The RCMP also provides policing services under contract to all territories and provinces, except Ontario and Quebec. In addition, it provides policing services to more than 150 municipalities and 600 Indigenous communities.

The RCMP also provides services to all Canadian public police forces. This includes the Canadian Police College and the Canadian Police Information Centre, the central police database that provides information on such matters as criminal records. Other specialized services include the Canadian Firearms Program and the National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre.

Provincial Police

Under the Constitution, provinces are responsible for public policing. However, only Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have their own provincial police force. In all other provinces and territories, the RCMP provides policing services to areas that don’t have municipal police forces.

The Ontario Provincial Police (founded in 1909) has jurisdiction over the entire province, except in municipalities that have their own police force. The Sûreté du Québec (founded in 1870) operates in a similar way. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (founded in 1871) provides policing services in communities across the province, including the major metropolitan areas: St. John’s Metropolitan Area, Corner Brook, Labrador City and Churchill Falls. In other areas, the province contracts the services of the RCMP.

Municipal Police

Most cities and many large towns have their own police force. Provinces delegate the responsibility of policing to large municipalities through provincial Police Acts. These municipal police forces are usually governed directly by municipal councils or their communities. Many towns and cities also have police boards that oversee the operation of the municipal police force. In addition, most provinces directly supervise municipal forces through police commissions. The provinces pay part of the cost of municipal policing and can penalize municipalities if they don’t meet standards.

First Nations Police

First Nations policing is governed by the First Nations Policing Program (FNPP). Under this policy, First Nations negotiate with the federal government and provincial or territorial government to establish policing agreements. The agreements can include self-administered police services or policing by provincial or federal services. The RCMP, for example, provides policing services to more than 600 Indigenous communities.

In 2018, there were 36 First Nations self-administered police services. In the west, they include the Manitoba First Nations Police, Stl'atl'imx Tribal Police Service, File Hills First Nations Police Service, Blood Tribe Police Service, Lakeshore Regional Police Service and Tsuut’ina Nation Police Service. There are many First Nations police services in central Canada, including the Six Nations Police Service, Anishinabek Police Service, Kahnawá:ke Peacekeepers, Abenaki Police Force and Timiskaming Police Force.

Other Police Forces

Apart from federal, provincial, municipal and First Nations police, governments in Canada authorize other forms of police with legal powers. These powers are limited to specific areas and/or specific groups of people but are like those of the public police. The Harbour Police, Military Police and Railway Police are examples.

Safeguards and Accountability

Police are responsible to obey the law as well as enforce it. The law (including the Canadian Criminal Code and provincial Police Acts) limits police power by defining the circumstances in which the police may act. In some circumstances, governments may pass laws that give the police "special powers." The most extraordinary example of this in Canada is the War Measures Act, which was invoked during the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec.

If police officers are accused of committing a crime, exceeding their limitations under the law or acting in a way that contravenes police codes of conduct, they will be investigated. Civilian oversight is an important part of this process. All provinces have a public complaint process that is independent from the police. Examples include the Office of the Independent Police Review Director in Ontario, Office of the Police Complaint Commissionerin British Columbia and Public Complaints Commission in Saskatchewan. Complaints about the RCMP are reviewed and managed by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP. A similar agency reviews complaints made about Military Police.

Members of the public can submit complaints to these organizations, which review and make recommendations but cannot usually investigate or lay charges. If they decide a complaint is legitimate, the case is usually forwarded to the police service in question. In cases of minor misconduct, police officers are usually disciplined informally. By law, more serious cases should be investigated by an independent organization, although this does not always happen.

Cases of criminal misconduct or other serious allegations (e.g., death, serious injury, sexual assault) are investigated by independent civilian agencies. These include Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team (SiRT) and the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT).

Complaints can lead to inquiries and significant change in Canadian policing. For example, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (1977–81) investigated allegations of crimes by the RCMP Security Service. One of its recommendations was the establishment of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). More recently, complaints of workplace harassment in the RCMP led to several reviews. In May 2017, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP released its Report on Workplace Harassment in the RCMP. Its recommendations included modernizing RCMP governance and making the organization’s harassment complaints process more independent and effective.

Independent agencies have also investigated allegations of racism among the police. This includes the impact of race in “street checks” or “carding,” when someone is stopped by police on the street in order to collect personal information. Complaints have also been made about police attitudes towards missing person and murder cases involving Indigenous people. In 2016, for example, a complaint was launched against the Thunder Bay police force regarding the way it investigated the deaths of Indigenous people. This launched a two-year review by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which revealed systemic racism in the force. In June 2019, the Thunder Bay police force announced that nine deaths would be reinvestigated by a multidisciplinary, multiagency team.

Further Reading

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