Since early 2020, movements against police violence have gained momentum around the globe. Calls to defund or abolish police forces are now central in popular movements, while mass uprisings have forced governments to start taking police brutality more seriously.
But here in Canada, can the 2021 federal election lead to anything besides performative calls for change?
What the parties are saying about police
Policing-related promises in the federal parties’ platforms range from superficial to some specifically engaging with police reform. No major party’s platforms make mention of defunding the RCMP.
The Conservatives are pledging $25 million to national police support and community training programs to “reduce the incarceration rates of Canada’s Indigenous communities.” They also promise to “stamp out” the RCMP’s culture of sexual harassment, and to hire 200 additional officers in the Greater Toronto Area and the Lower Mainland of B.C. in order to “help keep our communities safe.”
The Liberals are focusing on RCMP reform through enhanced oversight, review of internal policies (such as sanctions, discipline, and de-escalation training), prohibiting certain uses of force (neck restraints, rubber bullets and tear gas), and unspecified work with provinces, territories, and municipalities to connect the RCMP with community social support workers. The platform notes that Black and Indigenous people are far more likely to have fatal encounters with the RCMP, and that people with mental illness are subject to higher rates of arrest, but then fails to outline anything that would end these troubling norms.
The NDP is committing to ending police violence by overhauling police training and implementing a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate use-of-force. The party says it would release all use-of-force incidents by the RCMP and launch a full review of these practices, as well as a review of the RCMP’s budget and the RCMP Act. It would also immediately ban carding by the RCMP in all jurisdictions, and work with Indigenous peoples and communities to develop a First Nations justice and policing strategy.
The Green Party says it will reduce spending on police, reallocate funds to community and social services, review policing oversight bodies, and record use-of-force data. The Greens acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in policing, and plan to advocate for an end to street checks while urging governments to divest from police and detask them where appropriate.
While the Conservative platform retains its hallmark “law and order” deference to police, the Liberals, NDP and Greens make overtures to reform, emphasizing civilian oversight as an important fix. Oversight and reform, however, will not end the systemic issues plaguing police forces. The passing nods to re-allocating funds that are found in the NDP and Green platforms show more promise, as these interventions could remove police from the equation altogether.
It would be unrealistic to expect that any mainstream political party would engage with the concrete changes needed to defund the police, let alone hint at anything that looks like abolition. Instead, parties remain content to “play it safe” in emphasizing reform, despite how unsafe and violent the police remain.
Police violence, as Canadian as maple syrup
In 1873, just six years after Canada’s formal founding, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) was established and quickly became a central force in the state’s colonization of Indigenous lands. Today, its successor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police continues the NWMP’s legacy of expanding and maintaining settler colonial borders while facilitating infrastructure development and resource extraction across sovereign Indigenous territory—by whatever means necessary.
In British Columbia, the RCMP’s intrusion on sovereign Indigenous territory and its criminalization of land defenders has generated outrage across Canada and around the world. The police violence documented at land defenses and reclamations in Wet’suwet’en, Secwepemc and Pacheedaht territories undermine the federal Liberal and provincial NDP governments’ commitments to reconciliation and their supposed implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Just two months ago, Campbell River RCMP officers brutally killed Jared Lowndes, a member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. The National Police Federation—the RCMP’s union—was quick to minimize officers’ responsibility and instead victim-blamed Lowndes, saying if he had “instead turned himself in to the Courts to comply with a Warrant for weapons offenses, he could be alive today.”
The RCMP has spent huge effort on denying the systemic racism upon which it was founded, and to which it subjects Canadians today. It’s all out in the open. National media have reported on Facebook groups with thousands of current and past RCMP members who either spew overtly racist rhetoric or sit quietly by and watch it happen.
It’s impossible to still pretend that the force’s culture of racism is in no way connected to the high rates of police violence and police-involved killings of Black and Indigenous people, as documented in CBC’s Deadly Force Database and through the ongoing research of abolitionists like Jeff Shantz.
Amid all of this, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki “struggled” to define systemic racism. The RCMP is in complete disarray and a growing number of Canadians are questioning its legitimacy.
All the same, next April thousands of RCMP officers are set to see massive pay increases, as well as back pay from 2017 following the ratification of their collective agreement last month. In light of the harms that police continue to perpetuate, these wage increases contradict any meaningful action responding to police violence and corruption.
Governments respond to #defundthepolice
In June 2020 B.C. Premier John Horgan called defunding police a “simplistic” idea but committed to reviewing the provincial Police Act, a process that’s been mired in delays.
The spotlight on B.C. highlights how, even under an NDP government, police reform is not a priority. As of the end of August, the RCMP watchdog Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) had received upward of 100 formal complaints against the force over its conduct at the Ada’itsx/Fairy Creek blockades alone. Meanwhile, street checks continue and meaningful action hasn’t been taken on the devastating impacts of a prohibition-driven toxic drug supply in the province.
At the federal level, the Liberals in their 2020 throne speech committed to numerous criminal justice reforms, including the introduction of legislation to address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system. The plan, lacking specifics, promised greater civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies, improvements to police training (including around the use of force), reforming the RCMP through a shift towards community-led policing, and moving more quickly to co-develop a legislative framework for First Nations policing. A year later, there is little evidence of substantive change —and certainly no consideration of defunding the police.
The pervasive lack of accountability or access to justice for survivors of violence, including police and prison violence, means that Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour remain targets.
Building a police-free future
Police continue to dominate headlines with stories of violence and brutality, but no level of government seems prepared to commit to decisive action. Instead, paying lip service to narratives of “systemic issues” and “equity concerns” are presented as a cure for policing policy. Police forces across Canada are plagued by systemic racism and gendered violence and represent an institution notoriously resistant to change.
In the absence of change at the top, the public is left to contend with police forces that answer mostly to themselves and therefore remain unaccountable to those they purport to serve and protect. Following a summer of violent police displacements of unhoused people living in tents in city parks coast to coast, there is growing public dissatisfaction with the current role of police in our communities. The option of defunding police forces is growing in popularity and is the logical solution. Why not invest our time, thought, and resources into addressing root causes of inequality rather than policing and criminalizing its symptoms?
Rather than depend on mainstream political parties to abolish or defund the police, we must commit to movements that focus on decriminalizing survival, resourcing mutual aid, and building alternatives to policing and criminalization. As Breach contributor and abolitionist scholar Robyn Maynard says, we should build a “society based in care rather than in carceral conditions.”
Across Canada, people are working to realize this vision of a world without policing. Outside of electoral politics, there is incredible abolitionist work like Indigiqueer youth on the frontlines of land defence, groups like the Defund 604 Network, and family members who continue to fight for justice such as Laura Holland, the mother of Jared Lowndes.
These are the communities and networks of care that will actually end the violence of policing in Canada.