Canada: Toward a Police-Free Future?

Robyn MaynardToward a Police-Free Future in CanadaThe defund movement shows the way to divest from violence and repression, and invest in safety and life-affirming services.

“In Canada, more than 70 defunding related events took place over the summer of 2020.”

It’s been one year since the police publicly executed George Floyd in Minneapolis, and from New York to Toronto to Lagos, we have witnessed Black-led uprisings and mobilizations against anti-Black racism, policing, and the racial and economic injustices exposed by COVID-19.

In Canada, solidarity protests with Floyd occurred alongside protests denouncing the police killings of D’Andre Campbell, Sheffield Matthews, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Eishia Hudson, and Chantel Moore — all Black or Indigenous people killed by police last year. Many of these protests have coalesced around a demand to defund the police. In Canada, more than 70 defunding related events took place over the summer of 2020 with historic turnouts at many protests.

The call toward defunding—and toward abolition—is a broad based strategy being taken up as part of a wider struggle to end endemic anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism. This movement emerges both from the current moment of Black-led multiracial protest and from previous generations of Black struggle against the racial violence endemic to policing.

It comes from multiple generations of Black feminists on the frontlines of grassroots struggle, Black elementary and high school students wanting to feel safe in their schools, incarcerated people in jails, prisons, and immigration detention — and much of it is led by young Black women, queer, cis, trans and gender non conforming people. It is a call to create a society based in care rather than in carceral conditions.

The understanding that police need to be defunded has seen a spike in popular support. A national poll released last year, in the wake of a summer of protests, showed that more than one in every two people  in Canada supported the call to defund police in their municipalities — an astonishing culture shift for a demand that was until recently only marginally known in social movements.

And the movement has already had significant political wins. The city of Seattle voted to reduce their police budget by 18%. School divisions on both sides of the border are pausing, reviewing, or cancelling entirely  the School Resource Officer (SRO) programs that facilitate the presence of police in schools.

But the public reckoning with the role that policing plays in our lives—and the political transformation needed—should only just be beginning.


In the most basic sense, the demand to defund the police is exactly what it sounds like: it is a political strategy geared toward moving funding away from police. Defunding, however, is a strategy that is part of a broader movement geared toward reimagining safety and security in our society. It is about transitioning not only funding, but power, equipment, and force away from agents of state violence and repression, and committing to invest instead in community-centred forms of safety. It is about a broader abolitionist vision for addressing the root causes of harm and violence in our societies instead of policing them. It is about funding decent, long-term affordable housing, public transit, and community-led antiviolence projects rather than using massive public funds on forces whose primary role is to surveil, arrest, brutalize, incarcerate, and kill.

In the words of the “Interrupting Criminalization” Toolkit authored by Black feminists Andrea J. Ritchie, Mariame Kaba, and Woods Ervin: “#DefundPolice is a strategy that goes beyond dollars and cents—it is not just about decreasing police budgets, it is about reducing the power, scope, and size of police departments. It is about delegitimizing institutions of surveillance, policing and punishment, and these strategies, no matter who is deploying them, to produce safety. It is a strategy…to advance a long term vision of abolition of police through divestment from policing as a practice, dismantling policing institutions, and building community-based responses to harm, need, and conflict that do not rely on surveillance, policing and punishment.”

#DefundThePolice is about more than just municipal budgets. It is about ending austerity and investing differently: reducing our society’s reliance on policing, minimizing its impact on our communities, increasing safety, and meeting the material needs of our communities. That means that #DefundThePolice is not a call to replace police with high-tech surveillance technology or private security, or to invest other institutions of the state like social work, psychiatric institutions with the power to police our communities. It is saying that we deserve to keep our lives, and we deserve to live free from surveillance and brutality at the hands of publicly-funded institutions.

What the police do

The movement to defund police is grounded in the reality that policing is itself a kind of violence that can be traced to this country’s history of slavery and Indigenous genocide. In Canada, the RCMP, formerly the North West Mounted Police, was explicitly created to help clear the plains of self-sufficient Indigenous communities and to entrench control over their lands and resources. The RCMP have also played a role in suppressing labour movements, including the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

Law-enforcement policing of Black men and women has been endemic in cities across Canada since the 19th century and draws its lineage from the surveillance of enslaved Black people who ran away from conditions of bondage.

Police are resistant to keeping racial data, but what little statistical evidence we have is clear-cut. In Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax, Toronto, Edmonton, Lethbridge, the police have been found to stop Black and Indigenous people at vastly disproportionate rates. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has found that Black communities in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be killed by police than white residents, and face disproportionate rates of arrest and charges .

But don’t police spend most of their job protecting us from danger? In short, no. A Statistics Canada report estimated that up to 80 percent of police responses  to calls were related to issues of mental health, drug overdose, suicide, or domestic dispute/domestic violence. All of these are issues that police only serve to make worse. Further, punishing acts of violence does not prevent violence.

Toward defunding the police

Across the country, from Montreal to Hamilton to Vancouver, organizers are calling on their municipalities to slash police budgets and redirect them toward community-led initiatives. At this time, municipal tax dollars— the public subsidies that fund police budgets— are often exponentially higher than the public funds afforded to community housing, shelters, parks, and libraries. At the very least, a reallocation of municipal and federal funding for policing could be better spent by investing in drastically underfunded social supports.

There is a reason defunding is coupled with reinvesting. Police defunding is about seriously and genuinely committing ourselves to safety in our communities, about funding alternatives and community supports that are not rooted in the surveillance and punishment of our communities. As Mariame Kaba wrote in the New York Times, it is “not (about) abandoning our communities to violence,” but about working to end all violence, including police violence, by redressing racial and economic inequalities instead of policing them.

The abolition of police can also be understood as a decolonial practice, as part of a broader strategy of land restitution and liberation for Indigenous communities. Police have continually refused to protect Indigenous people from the violence of settlers, from the killing of Colten Boushie to the violent destruction of the Mi’kmaw lobster fisheries. In the words of Emily Riddle, making “The (First Nation) Case for Abolition”: “policing was established on this continent in part to aid in the theft of our territories, later upholding laws that criminalized our ceremonies and stole our children. We also know that Indigenous people are overpoliced and disproportionately represented in prisons in this country, and on the Prairies in particular. Police will not help us address the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls; they contribute to this violence. They invade our sovereign territories to ensure pipelines are built. To me, the case for abolition is clear.”

In 2013, a Human Rights Watch report on the RCMP in northern British Columbia  outlined egregious physical and sexual assaults by RCMP officers against Indigenous women and girls. In the words of Pam Palmater, “The only way we are ever going to stop RCMP racism and brutality against Indigenous peoples is to declassify, deconstruct and defund the institution itself.” Just like defunding the police is only one step toward abolition, it is only one part of decolonization. It does not stand in for the need for land return, like the struggles we are seeing at 1492 LandBack Lane, where land defenders were arrested in large numbers over the summer.

Reducing the scope of police

This strategy is geared toward reducing the presence of police—with the goal of removing it entirely—from the places that they are the most harmful. This includes decoupling police from schools, from mental health response, and from immigration procedures.

Currently, the School Resource Officer Program (SRO) places police in schools in most provinces, backed by million dollar budgets. However, a motion was just passed to successfully see the removal of police from schools in Hamilton, and the SRO program was put on pause—pending review—in the Waterloo region. Organizing efforts in Vancouver ended their SRO program, and work by Black Lives Matter (BLM)-Edmonton has led to a review of the city’s SRO program.

This work helps to minimize the presence and subsequent harm of policing. There are many successful models for this in Canada, and some major wins. Work undertaken by the Latinx, Afro-LatinAmerica, Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN), Education Not Incarceration, and BLM-TO has seen the successful removal of SROs from schools in Toronto. A study on the 2017-2018 school year, after the removal of the SRO program from the Toronto District School Board, found that suspensions dropped by 24 percent and expulsions by 53 percent . More recently, after suspending the SRO program in July, the Peel Regional Police announced in November 2020 that they will permanently dissolve the SRO program. While districts across the country currently spend millions of dollars each year on policing children in underfunded schools, these funds could be used for much needed student supports for Black and other racialized children.

Across Canada, police officers call immigration enforcement over 10,000 times every year: this puts undocumented residents, especially Black undocumented residents, at risk of deportation and indefinite detention. Work to create “Sanctuary Cities” by Solidarity Across Borders and No One Is Illegal has helped to decouple CBSA presence from women’s shelters and schools, work that has helped to minimizes the immigration policing of our community members.  Decoupling police from immigration controls would keep our community members even safer.

The policing of mental health itself is a public health crisis. A CBC study uncovered that over 70% of people killed by police in the last 20 years had mental health or substance use issues at the time of their death. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, has recently called to divorce police response to mental health crisis.  Activists across the country are demanding crisis intervention, mad co-led support teams, and other non-police alternative responses to mental health crises.

In this moment, people are also dying of drug overdoses in record numbers. Drug user and harm reduction groups have advocated for years to end the practice of sending police to overdose calls. A study in Ontario  found that the primary barrier to calling emergency assistance in overdose situations was fear of police presence and fear of criminal charges. Some jurisdictions in the United States have successfully decoupled police from overdose response. Removing police from overdose and ambulance related calls would mean our communities would feel safer in accessing life-saving health services.

Reducing the power of police

Reducing the power of police over Black, Indigenous, and other impacted communities asks us to look at the assortment of laws that criminalize people’s survival. This includes the decriminalization of poverty and decriminalizing survival.

Policing criminalizes poverty. Because poverty is systemically racialized, Black and Indigenous people are vastly overrepresented in homeless populations across Canada. It has long been recognized that criminalization of poor people’s lives vis-à-vis bylaw infractions is a human rights abuse and does nothing to solve the issue of poverty, homelessness, or massive exclusion of Black and Indigenous communities from decently paid and/or unionized work. As Pivot Legal Society wrote in a challenge to bylaws criminalizing homelessness in Vancouver, “these bylaws and the fines associated with them criminalize poverty and push homeless people into dark corners of the City where they are at greater risk of assault and exposure.” Instead, we need to dismantle and overturn ordinances that criminalize people in public space and especially those that criminalize poverty: loitering, fare evasion, sleeping in public, public urination, public intoxication, solicitation (squeegeeing, panhandling).

Drug laws have disproportionately impacted Black communities for decades and are an important part of how Black people are surveilled, arrested, and charged by police officers. International public health bodies have highlighted the connection between the criminalization of drugs and the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C, and that the criminalization and policing of drugs is related to increased fatal overdoses. There are non-police approaches to drug use in society that are widely supported by evidence around the world including safe injection/inhalation sites, safe supply, and non-coercive, voluntary addiction counseling and treatment.

In Canada, sex work is criminalized, and the enforcement of bylaws impacts migrant sex workers most intensively. They also have a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty. Black and Indigenous sex workers, especially cis and trans women, have long born the brunt of police surveillance and enforcement around sex work and related laws and bylaws. In areas where sex work is decriminalized—like New Zealand— sex workers experience significantly less violence and report an increased ability to practice safer sex.

False solutions to police violence

Because of groundswell of protest, the concept of defunding, while gaining popularity, is also being diluted and divorced from its broader political goals, making defunding only a fiscal policy.

This disguises the broader critique of policing. Misuse of the term includes commentators arguing that defunding the police means replacing police with smart surveillance technology or police themselves deciding what defunding means. For example, the Halifax police forwarded a motion to adopt a definition for defunding the police that “supports a role for policing” and that includes “police performing policing functions.” These actions are not in the spirit of defunding.

We’ve also seen the emergence of proposals that are false solutions to the problem of policing. Police oversight units in Canada were designed to protect police, not communities. While oversight units are described as “civilian oversight”, out of 167 members involved in police investigation units across Canada, 111 are former police officers. Police oversight bodies in Alberta have been criticized for their lack of independence, and an audit of police oversight in British Columbia  found that nearly half of excess force allegations “were not properly investigated.” Quebec’s oversight body, created in 2016, laid zero charges as of 2019, and in Ontario, a 2018 CBC report on police killings found that in 17 years, only one officer was found guilty in the death of a civilian in Ontario.

Even the extremely rare instance that an officer who kills is convicted, this does little for community healing, and less to prevent future police killings, which have nearly doubled over the past 20 years. When policing and punishment are the source of injustice, we cannot rely on these systems to hold themselves accountable. Preventative and restorative models for accountability––including consequences for officers who have killed, such as losing their jobs and access to positions of power—have been modelled in Chicago by the Movement for Black Lives “Reparations Toolkit.”

Why not body cams? Body cameras do not prevent police violence, as demonstrated by multiple peer-reviewed studies. A 2019 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America  concluded that body-worn cameras had “statistically insignificant” effects on police officers’ behavior. A Yale Law Review study suggests that body cameras may even make the likelihood of use of fatal force by police worse, as officers believe they are doing nothing wrong.

Why not more “diverse” officers? Hiring more BIPOC officers has been proposed for decades. Today, we have Black heads of police in Toronto and Ottawa, and Black people continue to be disproportionately stopped, arrested, charged and killed.

“Body-worn cameras had “statistically insignificant” effects on police officers’ behavior.”

Our communities deserve better than small-scale reforms. Some of these reforms were fought for by our communities in the past only to be defanged and coopted into initiatives that would maintain the status quo. This was not a failure on the part of our communities, who took enormous risks to try to build a world in which Black people––and all people––could be safe. But it does show us that “police reform” cannot get to the heart of the crisis, that we need a more transformative shift. Police killings have doubled over the last twenty years. The failure of all of these reforms—their absolute inability to keep our communities safe—have led communities to insist that we need to demand something more transformative. Safety requires economic transformation, divestment from policing and carceral institutions, and real investment in meeting peoples’ needs.

Defunding is part of a broader political vision that is rooted in reimagining public safety and acknowledging that policing is a source of harm for Black communities, for Indigenous communities, and for an assortment of other abandoned and disenfranchised people: people without stable housing, people living with mental health issues, sex workers, and drug users. It cannot be understood separately from changing an economic system that relegates so many of our communities to acute poverty. Ending the crisis that is policing means working, too, to abolish capitalism.

Putting an end to police violence means putting an end to policing. It is part of a vision geared toward diminishing – with the goal of eliminating entirely – the power that police have over our communities and the access that they have to our communities. It is a strategy, and part of a broader struggle toward abolitionist futures and building the world we want.

This is an adapted version of Building the World We Want: A Roadmap to Police Free Futures in Canada toolkit . Some parts of the text in the toolkit were adapted from Maynard’s “Police Abolition/Black Revolt”, published  in Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies.