Public Safety Canada commissioned a poll intended to manufacture low support for “defunding the police” among Canadians, documents obtained by The Breach reveal.

The department, headed up by former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, paid Environics research firm to conduct the poll in the fall of 2020, in the wake of historic Black Lives Matter protests that elevated the demand of defunding the police into mainstream discussions.

According to government documents obtained through access-to-information requests, several poll questions relating to police were vetted by the department’s “policing partners,” including the RCMP.

Correspondence between department officials and Environics show the government succeeded in introducing pro-police bias into questions or scrapping ones they found unsympathetic.

Coming on the heels of an earlier IPSOS poll in 2020 that made waves for showing that a majority of Canadians support defunding the police, including overwhelming majorities of young people, the department’s exercise turned out to be a PR success.

The government poll was not immediately released publicly, but was reported on as “confidential” by Ottawa-based Blacklock’s Reporter, which claimed it “found [the] largest number of Canadians want MORE police funding, not less.”

Their reporting was picked up by major newspapers across the country last summer, with headlines like “Most Canadians against defunding police” and “Study: Public says ‘don’t defund our police.’”

But there was another wrinkle.

Despite having introduced pro-police bias into the questions, the full poll results, which Public Safety Canada quietly posted online a month after the initial coverage, show public support for defunding the police was in fact high and was misrepresented in the media coverage.

The highest number of Canadians—30 percent—supported less funding for the police or abolishing them entirely, while only 28 percent wanted more funding for police, contradicting what was reported by Blacklock’s Reporter

And while spending on police continues to rise in cities across Canada, a significant number of Canadians—27 percent—supported a budget freeze.

Tari Ajadi, a political scientist and pre-doctoral fellow at Queen’s University who studies policing and who reviewed the documents for The Breach, said the poll was designed to reinforce the status quo. 

“The survey reframes the debate about defunding the police as either we can have safety and police, or no police and no safety,” he said. “This ignores the ways communities have been calling for the reinvestment of police funding in services that enhance safety, that provide better safety than the status quo.” 

Black Lives Matter rally at Vancouver Art Gallery, May 2020. Photo: GoToVan
Black Lives Matter rally at Vancouver Art Gallery, May 2020. Photo: GoToVan

The spectre of public support for defunding the police

As calls for divesting from police and reinvesting in community services spread through North America in the summer of 2020, Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair continued to make statements that policing is necessary for public safety. 

A month after the release of a widely-circulated poll by IPSOS showing majority support for defunding the police, officials at his department jumped into action.

They commissioned Environics to run an online poll for $115,000 that would “get a better sense of Canadians’ views on issues related to biases, diversity, and identity in the national security context.”

But the questions crafted by Environics about police defunding would not make it past the department’s police partners.

In an initial draft shared with department officials in the fall of 2020, Environics suggested two questions.

One would ask whether current police expenditures were “too much,” “the right amount,” or “too little.”

Another would ask the level of support or opposition to three scenarios, which included “eliminating the police altogether and find[ing] a new way to address crime and safety.” 

These questions echoed the perspective being articulated by the social movement then filling up the streets across Canada: police don’t make us safer or lessen crime, and “a new way” to keep communities secure is possible by defunding police in favour of life-affirming community and mental health services.

Toward the end of 2020, departmental officials circulated the draft poll to various government bodies.

Soon after, a senior policy analyst at Public Safety Canada wrote to Environics that two unnamed “policing partners” had taken issue with the questions about defunding. 

In the right-hand column, Public Safety Canada’s “policing partners” criticize the draft poll questions. The question was subsequently dropped from the poll.

Following this feedback, the two poll questions were radically changed.

Rather than presenting three “defund” scenarios, the question was modified to include four options for respondents: total, partial or stable defunding, as well as increased funding.

And instead of being asked to weigh in on different ways of addressing public safety, respondents were asked to choose between “having the police do all the things they do now to protect public safety” and a mix of social services with no clear connection to public safety. 

After input from the government’s policing partners, the final poll question suggested that “maintaining” and “increasing” funding to police would improve public safety.

If the first version of the survey echoed the core argument of the movement to defund the police, the final version reflected the perspective of Minister Bill Blair: only the police can truly provide safety.

When The Breach asked Public Safety Canada who its unnamed “policing partners” were, a spokesperson said they “consulted with the RCMP” and “consulted internally with subject-matter experts on issues surrounding policing.”

Fear the answer? Avoid the question

Criticism of the police’s attempt to control their image in Canada has been growing.

A high profile review of lawsuits related to sexual harassment within the RCMP by former Auditor General Sheila Fraser found that the force’s focus was to protect its image over addressing the abuse. 

“There is a tendency to downplay the transgressions in order to protect the reputation of the organization,” she wrote in the 2017 report.  “There is a strong predisposition within the RCMP to defend its actions in order to protect its image.”

Jason Disano, the director of the Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research at the University of Saskatchewan, reviewed the documents for The Breach and said the poll questions ultimately used were unnecessarily confusing. 

“They’re conflating too many issues in one question,” Disano said. “They’re asking about police budgets, social services, public safety, substance abuse—that’s a lot.” 

A better survey, Disano said, would ask people about their level of support for various options, rather than forcing them to choose just one. 

“They’re presenting this as black or white, when people’s preferences on these issues are generally shades of grey,” he told The Breach. 

 “The only way people can choose safety [in this poll] is to choose the police,” said Robyn Maynard, a scholar and author of the national bestseller Policing Black Lives who also reviewed the poll. “The vision of community safety advanced by the defund the police movement appears nowhere.”

What department officials may not have prepared for was that despite the biased questions, the poll still ultimately found high levels of support for defunding the police. 

Among Canadians 18-29 years old, 47 per cent supported shifting police funding to social services or abolishing the police entirely. Among Black Canadians of all ages, 46 percent supported these two scenarios.

The poll also found very little support for year over year increases in police funding, which is what has continued to happen in Canadian cities across the country. 

Of those polled, less than one third supported increased police funding—even though this ended up dominating the headlines of media coverage.

“People are fed up with the status quo,” Ajadi said. “They are calling for change and they’re willing to fight for it, even as government projects like this poll stack the deck against them.”

-Files from Martin Lukacs

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