The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2004)

ISSN: 1710 6915


Philip C. Stenning

Philip Stenning is Professor and Director of the Institute of Criminology, University of Wellington, New Zealand. This summary is taken from “Policing the Cultural Kaleidoscope: Recent Canadian Experience”, Police & Society, 2003, 7: 21-87.

In Canada, as in many other countries, the challenges of policing a society growing more culturally, racially, ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse have preoccupied policymakers and academics for the last four decades. A combination of dramatically increased immigration, and police services that have often slowly or reluctantly recognized the need for and embraced changes within their organizations and practices, has led to unresolved tension and conflict between police and many members of the communities they serve. Although such difficulties are not unique to policing, the particular role of police in maintaining order and enforcing the law places them on the front lines of such conflicts and ensures that their activities will attract a great deal of media and, hence, public and political attention.

In this paper, I review the principal developments in the policing of Canada’s increasingly multicultural communities during the latter decades of the 20th century, and offer some tentative assessments of the progress made in this delicate and highly controversial area of public policy. I present an overview of the changing composition of Canadian society, particularly in its metropolitan areas, during the last 40 years, discuss the associated challenges for policing, and explore the principal responses to these challenges.

Some other issues reviewed in the paper but not summarized here include: questions on the policing of Canada’s Aboriginal communities; the roles and experiences of private policing organizations in addressing the challenges of policing multicultural communities; some practical and methodological obstacles to undertaking research on multicultural policing; and the existence of a conceptual dilemma for policy and practice in policing a multicultural society.

The Changing Canadian Mosaic

During the last four decades of the 20th century, the racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious makeup of the Canadian population, especially in its largest cities, underwent significant change. Between 1961 and 1991 the proportion of the Canadian population of European extraction declined from 97 per cent to 60 per cent so that, by the 1990’s and especially in major urban centres1 , the population manifested a racial, ethnic and cultural heterogeneity that simply did not exist when so many of Canada’s senior police managers joined the police services during the post-War years of the 1950’s.

A range of legislative responses to these demographic changes included the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, 1988, declaring multiculturalism to be the official policy of the Canadian government, and sections 15 and 27 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, proscribing discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour or religion, and requiring the Charter to be applied “in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians”, respectively.

Challenges for Policing

This massive wave of immigration, while bearing enormous benefits for Canada, has generated significant challenges for police. These include different attitudes towards government, law, justice, appropriate social order, interpersonal relations and child rearing, as well as a host of hitherto unfamiliar (and in some cases illegal) cultural and religious practices. The linguistic diversity of many of the new immigrants has presented additional challenges for police. Resistance to integration of immigrants has led to community tensions and the rise of openly racist groups, to which the police have been called upon to respond.

Policy Responses

Diversification of the Police Workforce

Despite major initiatives to recruit and promote members of visible minority groups and of ethnic and religious minorities, such people remain substantially under-represented in almost all of Canada’s public police services compared with their representation in the communities they police. Thus, for instance, by 2000 visible minority members constituted less than four per cent of sworn officers in the Montreal Urban Community Police Service, approximately ten per cent of sworn officers in the Toronto Police Service, and about seven per cent of officers in the Vancouver Police Service.

Culturally Specific, or Cultural Sensitivity Training, and Police-Minority Community Liaison

From the 1980’s onwards, almost all of Canada’s major police services introduced programs designed to bring police together with representatives of racial, ethnic, cultural and religious minority groups in the hope that police would understand the traditions and customs of such groups better, and that members of such groups would develop a more sympathetic understanding of police and the difficult jobs they are expected to do. These initiatives have taken two main forms -- training programs in “cultural sensitivity” for police officers (in which instructors are typically representatives of such minority groups), and the establishment of minority community advisory or liaison groups with a mandate to advise police management as to the best ways to manage their relationships with such groups in the community.

Unfortunately, such evaluations as have been done on such initiatives have tended to show very modest and, in some cases, even negative results in meeting stated objectives. In the case of training programs, this has been attributed to resistance to such training within the police subculture, as well as to the fact that such training has typically not been sufficiently integrated within mainstream police training programs, but has been an “add-on” program. In the case of liaison and advisory groups, their poor record of success has been attributed to the difficulty of ensuring that such groups are truly representative, difficulties in sustaining minority group participation in such groups, and ongoing perceptions by minority group participants that meetings are dominated by police rather than minority group concerns, and that the police are not receptive to suggestions unless they conform to police priorities.

Formal Antiracism and Race Relations Policies and Monitoring

With the proliferation of provincial human rights and anti-discrimination legislation during the 1960’s, and ongoing confrontations between police and visible minority communities in major urban centres during the 1970’s, many police services began to adopt formal anti-racism policies and race relations policies. It was not until a series of public inquiries into ongoing conflicts between police and minority groups in several Canadian cities had emphasized the need for more concerted action to address these problems, however, that any serious efforts were made to systematically evaluate the actual impact of such formal policies on police practices, both in terms of the relations between police and visible minority group members of the public, and in terms of race relations within police services themselves (i.e. the experiences of minority group police officers within the organization).

An audit of the race relations policies and practices of the (then) Metropolitan Toronto Police Service by the Metropolitan Toronto Auditor in 1992 was the first of such formal evaluations, the findings of which were unfortunately not very encouraging. At about the same time, the Federal Solicitor General established a Canadian Centre for Police Race Relations in Ottawa, with a mandate to act as a clearinghouse for information and best practices on police race relations, and advise police services on policies and training in this area. As a result of cutbacks to the Ministry’s budget, however, the Centre was closed in 1999.

Review and Revision of Operational Policing Policies Leading to Systemic Discrimination Against Members of Minority Groups

Many advocates of better police-minority group relations have argued that the main sources of disadvantage that members of minority groups face in their dealings with police derive not so much from the ignorance, prejudice or outright racism of individual police officers (to which many of the previously discussed policy responses were addressed), but to general police policies and practices that are systemically discriminatory in their effects and impacts (so-called “systemic racism”). In its inquiries and research, and in its final report published in 1995, the Commission on Systemic Racism in Ontario’s Criminal Justice System made serious efforts to identify these sources of systemic discrimination in the policies and practices of police services in Ontario, and set out a series of recommendations designed to correct them. Unfortunately, however, owing to a change of government in the province, its recommendations have not been vigorously pursued and many of them have not been acted upon.

Minority Representation on Police Governing Authorities

During the latter half of the 1980s, provincial governments began to make a conscious effort to appoint members of minority groups as members of police governing authorities in the belief that such appointments would enhance the capacity of police governing authorities to more accurately represent the views and wishes of the communities served by their police services, particularly in the ethnically diverse metropolitan centres. The initiatives were encouraged by the newly formed Canadian Association of Police Boards which, together with its provincial counterparts, began to mount seminars to educate police governing authority members on matters related to their responsibilities, including issues of police race relations and the problems of policing a multicultural society. No systematic information is available, however, as to the current composition of municipal and regional police governing authorities in Canada or the extent to which police governing authority members have received any training in matters of multiculturalism and race relations and their relevance to policing. It is difficult, therefore, to assess how much impact these recent developments have had on police governing authorities or the police services that they govern.

Hate Crimes Units

Concerns over the spread of hate propaganda and hate-motivated crimes, and over the socially destructive effects that inadequate investigation and prosecution of such offences might cause, led the Toronto and Ottawa police services to establish specialized Hate Crimes Investigation Units in 1993. Police services in Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver soon followed suit and, according to Mock2 , “at the present time, most large cities in Canada have police hate crimes units, or at least specialized officers within intelligence or other relevant units, responsible for developing expertise in the area, training their colleagues and documenting the incidents of hate-motivated crime, including statistics on target groups.”


Over the last 40 years, a variety of initiatives and activities have taken place at both the policy and operational levels to better equip Canadian police services for meeting the challenges of policing a multicultural society that have resulted from population diversification brought about by increased immigration. While few would doubt the sincerity and good intentions of the initiatives, they have achieved limited success in meeting their stated objectives. Canada still experiences significant problems and tensions between and within its diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious communities and between members of these communities and its police services. This is also true with respect to its Aboriginal population.

Success has been limited, in part, because it is far beyond the capacity and mandate of the police to address the underlying causes of such problems and tensions (such as intolerance, discrimination, and associated unequal access to education, employment, and social services). Two other issues are raised but not fully explored in this paper: a lack of good data on the nature of the problems that law enforcement personnel face in policing a multicultural society and on their success in doing so; and a potential conceptual dilemma underlying approaches to policing a multicultural society that has not been adequately addressed or resolved.

Despite these difficulties, however, considerable and consistent progress toward more appropriate and effective policing of Canada’s multicultural society has been observed over the last 40 years. It is likely that the situation would be worse today without the activities and initiatives undertaken over that same period. Although such conclusions are unsatisfactorily vague, they are the best that can be offered until systematic data that could form the basis for more precise evaluations can be made available in Canada.


1. 2001 Census data, released since this article was originally written, reveal that visible minority groups now constitute 37 per cent of the populations of both the Toronto and Vancouver Census Metropolitan Areas

2. Karen R. Mock, “Countering Antisemitism and Hate in Canada Today – Legal/Legislative Remedies and Current Realities”, Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1998/99. Lincoln: 2000, University of Nebraska Press.