Police Roles in Canada Between 1830 and 1980

Police Roles in Canada Between 1830 and 1980

Policing within the criminal justice system in Canada have undergone many transformations between the nineteenth and twentieth century. Although there are certain aspects of the role of police and the criminal justice system that vary from province to province, some forms of uniformity still do exist. This uniformity was more evident in the earlier years, as Canada adopted the laws and traditions from the British judicial system (Marquis, 1988). Many of these British laws and traditions were embedded in the role of the Canadian policing in the nineteenth century. However, between the years of 1830 and 1980 due to various regional, political and social factors, the roles of policing went through numerous and widespread changes. This paper will outline how these regional, political and social factors and their sub components contributed to the changes that occurred in policing over time in Canada. Regionalism will be discussed in terms of differences and similarities within provinces, political changes will include political influences (partisanship) and police corruption and social changes will be discussed in relation to class, gender and police community relations. Lastly an inclusion of how these influences changed the criminal justice system will be reviewed.


Nineteenth century Canada started to develop as British and Irish settlers immigrated to Canada. In the 1840s, British North America consisted of small rural towns such as Montreal, Toronto, Halifax and Saint John (Marquis, 1988). As the population began to grow in these small towns, the need for protectors of law arose. Two decades after the confederation of Canada, new cities and towns were founded which lead to the development of police forces throughout Canada in the 1830s (Marquis, 1994). With 125 cities and towns and a population of over 4000 in each city, roughly 3900 police officers were employed throughout Canada. Of these employed officers, 1700 were RCMP. As the twentieth century approached the police forces became larger within the individual Canadian regions (Rogers, 1984) and continued to grow which meant that police role had to continually evolve. Although the process of this change varied across Canada there were some similarities which made Canada a uniformed region in some cases.

Aside from the differences that were noted above, some similarities existed within Canada. Many citizens of each of these developing cities in Canada were supportive of having a police force which they wanted to feel protected by (Marquis, 1986 & Rogers, 1984). Prior to the “new police”, police roles remained consistent in each city as pointed out by Marquis (1986), Rogers (1984) and Acheson (1985). Many of the police officers were affiliated with politics which created prejudices when it came to making arrests in the later nineteenth century. The majority of arrests in the Canadian cities were of working class citizens (Guth, 1994). Capital offences in 1882 were murder and treason however there were only eight murder convictions during that time. Canada was seen as a more peaceable and law abiding country compared to the United States in that time (Friedland, 1984).

After the popular police reform post 1850s, most police officers roles were enhanced by applying strict rules in which they would have to adhere to. Although the reform was implemented in many of the cities, some cities took a longer time to enforce it and to see any changes to the police force. With the reform in place, Canadian police officers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century continued to have many of the same struggles with regards to temptations of liquor, gambling and other activities that were considered illegal in society. This created issues as citizens of Canada wanted a police force in which they can rely on and feel protected by. This appeared to be a trend that continued on to the late twentieth century as different types of temptations were introduced.

One common force which existed throughout Canada especially in the North West Canada was the Royal Mounted Police force (RCMP) which was formerly known as the North West Mounted Police. The RCMP was developed by the Parliament of Canada to serve as a national police force (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). Their first role was to implement the laws in the newly acquired Western Territories. The most popular event that made the RCMP well known was the march of 1874 to Southern Alberta. Their main goal for this march was to enforce the laws of the land to the American whiskey traders who were operating amongst the Aboriginal people (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). Throughout the years the RCMP force was based in different areas of Canada to assist in various national laws. Despite the threats to eliminate the force, the RCMP grew in numbers and returned to provincial policing in the 1920s (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). During the 1970s the responsibilities of the RCMP expanded to include airport policing, VIP security and drug enforcement.

Political Factors

Controlling of the police forces varied across Canada’s provinces during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many provinces were community controlled by the municipal government such as the local magistrates and a political executive which was a police commission. Ontario and Quebec were the only provinces controlled by the provincial government and magistrates (Guth, 1994). The municipal model was introduced to the following cities in different years as the cities and the police force began to develop: 1862 in Victoria, 1885 in Calgary, 1886 in Calgary, 1874 in Winnipeg, 1893 in Edmonton and 1903 in Regina (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). Most of the municipal forces were small, some consisting of two to five men while others ranged from six to twenty men. Police stations were found sporadically in many of the smaller Canadian cities. Toronto was one of the cities that had several police stations as the police force grew (Rogers, 1984). In 1858 a separate police board was created in Toronto due to the high consensus to have local control of the police. This was not seen in other cities at that time (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994).

Canada viewed legal rights and political rights as a non separated form of law after the adoption of the British Constitutionalist tradition (Marquis, 1988). Depending on the city, Political factors had a strong influence on the role of police in the nineteenth century (Marquis, 1986 & Rogers, 1984). This was evident throughout Canada as some provinces had stronger political ties than others depending on their beliefs. These forces were established with the aid of political ties which was used to influence the way the police operated. In 1834, Toronto’s police force was composed of men with sectarian views and who were heavily influenced by the Tories and their beliefs (Rogers, 1984). Their coercive role consisted of breaking up strikes and harassing trade unions (Acheson, 1985). As a result, this lead to the conspiracy of violence towards individuals who did not support the Tories and who did not share the same religious beliefs. The role of the police in Toronto during that time was very biased and focused on the needs of the political beliefs of the Tories. Saint John, New Brunswick’s police establishment had political ties as well which influenced their functioning as police (Marquis, 1886). As time went on the Canadian society began to realize that the police were not as effective as they could be in enforcing the law which lead to the popular reform that brought upon major changes to the police force.

The police reform was met with great resistance from the police but especially the politicians who were not in favour for such changes during the 1880s (Marquis, 1986 & Rogers, 1984). The idea was to alleviate any political ties in order to have a well working police establishment. Ontario’s police reform was vastly expanded throughout its major communities which demonstrated that they needed to have change in their law enforcement. Other provincial cities underwent changes however greater emphasis was placed on Toronto’s reform to strengthen their police force (Marquis, 1986). The Toronto police were positioned away from the community to distinguish separation from the community (Rogers, 1986). Saint John police officers were seen as an integral part of their community which they were positioned in.

Police corruption was evident in both the nineteenth and twentieth century in various cities throughout Canada. The earlier events that lead to corruption was mainly the partisanship the police force had with the politicians (Marquis, 1986). Many arrests consisted of individuals who went against the political beliefs of the society despite the fact they may have not committed an obvious crime (Rogers, 1984). Officers of the law began to engage in misconduct by accepting liquor from those that provided pertinent information for them as liquor was considered illegal at that time. Some officers did not arrest individuals who broke any Temperance laws during the nineteenth century (Marquis, 1984). These were not favourable behaviours which also contributed to the police reform. In the twentieth century as other criminal offences became more prevalent organized vice was on the rise with illegal gambling, illegal use of drugs and the illegal housing in which these activities were conducted (Marquis, 1995). Some of the police in Vancouver, British Columbia did not see vice as a serious crime which lead to some illegal involvement from the police (Marquis, 1995). This became a component in the moral purity movement in Vancouver and other Canadian cities as well since moral enforcement became a political issue (Marquis, 1995). The police forces were not only caught between political factors but what was morally and legally right and wrong.

Social Factors

In 1882 there were 1500 police officers in all of Canada and by 1982, there were over 60,000 police officers (Friedland, 1984). Police forces in the 1830s consisted of middle class Caucasian men who were mainly believers in the Protestant faith (Marquis, 1988). They belonged to communities that were homogenous with regards to race, language and religion (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). During 1900 to 1920 the police functioning was under close observation from moral and social reform committees. This resulted in the hiring of police women in larger police departments to serve as matrons, clerks, morality detective department operatives (Marquis, 1994). As the later twentieth century approached police officers were diverse including the introduction of officers with different ethnic background and the inclusion of fully functioning female police officers (Marquis, 1994).

Throughout each city, the level of partisanship varied based on society, hence the level of community involvement also varied. Rogers (1984), portrayal of Toronto prior to the reform showed that their loyalties lied with the politicians and their secret society group known as the ‘Orangemen”. This created a tension within the city and an outcry for there to be changes in how the police force operated. After much debate on the issue it was settled that a police reform would benefit not only the city but the police themselves (Rogers, 1984). Once the reform was in place, Toronto police officers were placed in stations away from working class citizens (Rogers, 1984). They were to follow strict rules and live amongst themselves. The only time they would be able to leave was to walk the beat and intervene in situations where the law was being broken. In contrast Saint John police were very involved with the community. After the reform they offered their police stations to individuals who did not have shelter (Marquis, 1986). They often arrested these individuals for the offence of vagrancy so that they would have some place to stay (Rogers, 1984)

Early roles of the police with regards to the criminal justice system included breaking up strikes, harassing trade unions, arresting those who were guilty of drunkenness, disturbing the peace and vagrancy (Marquis, 1986, Rogers, 1984 & Acheson, 1985). Community relations with the police varied in each city. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century police acquired a social service function in which they would assist with husband and wife disputes for example (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). Their main role was order keeping in society whereby the higher courts took an active role in defining the police powers in the later twentieth century (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). This lead to the Charter of Rights and Freedom where police roles were questioned after looking at their current powers at that time towards suspected individuals (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994).

As the years went on and police officers grew in numbers, special areas of policing were introduced. Larger towns employed detectives to carry out investigations who were expected to know criminals and group them into categories or profiles to assist in further arrest of criminals with similar characteristics (Marquis, 1994). As a result of the expanding roles of the police and the introduction of detectives, decentralization was apparent in Canadian cities. Police forces had differences in styles of management, working conditions and pay (Marquis, 1994). By the early twentieth century the larger police departments possessed patrol wagons and electric signals in order to assist in their law enforcement. Smaller police departments in some of the cities lacked the financial resources to acquire patrol wagons initially (Marquis, 1994). Many cities did not have resources to enhance the role of the police force however this changed as time went on and resources became more available.

Influence on the Canadian Criminal justice system

As the police role continued to evolve, the influence this had on the criminal justice system went through several changes as well. Police officers were considered enforcers of the law and protectors of society. When the first police force was established they were known as “the night watchman” (Marquis, 1988). They did not have any direct relation to the criminal justice system as their duties included to ensure that the city was safe. After the reform police were regarded as the “new police” (Rogers, 1984) and their roles had a direct influence on the criminal justice system (Friedland, 1984). The way in which they used their powers to question suspects during the late nineteenth century illustrated how their powers can persuade a suspect to confess therefore ensuring a conviction at trial (Friedland, 1984). This can be seen in the Milton Case, where O’Rourke was questioned improperly by the police who appeared to have misused their powers to get this suspect to confess to a murder which he possibly did not commit. The underlying point was that the confession was perhaps forced which raised many questions of the criminal justice system at that time.

Changes to the criminal justice system were made in the early twentieth century such as the techniques of the police and scientific investigation as new laws were in place (Friedland, 1984). The introduction of the charter of rights and freedom changed the way in which the police would function in the criminal justice system (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). After questions about the laws were posed and the way police powers were used certain laws were put into place in order to enhance Canada’s criminal justice system (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994). The main role of police officers in the later twentieth century and onwards was to apprehend offenders and lay charges against the accused, based on the Criminal Code. They are considered an essential part of the criminal justice system (Macleod & Schneiderman, 1994).


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