The History of Policing in Canada

The History of Policing in Canada
The History of Policing in Canada

At this moment, there are over 69,000 police officers working across Canada, in addition to roughly 30,000 support personnel.[i] Financed to the tune of nearly $15 billion per year, Canadian police are highly skilled and equipped with the latest technology.[ii] Many officers, and particularly those in senior positions, are expected to have both professional training and a post-secondary degree, such as Wilfrid Laurier’s Bachelor's in Policing. 

Yet police departments as we know them today didn’t spring fully-formed from the mind of some visionary minister or bureaucrat. In this post, we’ll be digging into the history of policing in Canada, from early federal law enforcement agencies such as the Dominion Police Force (DPF) to the contemporary Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). 

Early Metropolitan Police 

During the early days of colonization, policing was predominantly a local concern, with municipalities generally following contemporary French and English traditions by establishing constabularies and/or watchmen systems.[iii] The Canadian model would undergo a major change in the early 19th century following the founding of London, England’s Metropolitan Police, which operated under “Peelian principles.” 

As defined by then-Home Secretary Sir Robert Peele, these principles expounded on the idea that members of law enforcement are citizens in uniform, who undertake their duties with the consent of their fellow citizens[iv]. Police are therefore accountable to the communities they serve, who authorize officers to exercise force in exchange for protection and maintenance of public order. This social compact helped to reduce public opposition to the formation of a large, centralized police department, which Londoners feared could be deployed as a paramilitary to crack down on protests and civil liberties.[v] 

Using the London Metropolitan Police as an example, Canada’s largest cities of Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City created police departments in 1835, 1838 and 1840 respectively. 

Canada’s Frontier and the North-West Mounted Police 

Meanwhile, the ceding of western territory formerly governed (de facto) by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1868 meant that Canada now had a vast frontier to deal with. These lands were still primarily populated by the Indigenous peoples from whom the territory had been gradually seized via armed conflicts and treaties, and there were frequent conflicts between the natives, Métis and American hunters and traders (most notably at the Cypress Hills Massacre).[vi] 

Fearing that American deaths might cause a military intervention from the south, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald founded the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) to enforce laws in the region. Unlike the metropolitan police, the NWMP combined policing, judiciary and military functions. Though initially only 150 strong, the NWMP (later renamed the Royal North-West Mounted Police) essentially acted as a token symbol of Canada’s occupation of the lightly-colonized territory. 

The establishment of the force coincided with Canada’s key public works project of the era, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Throughout construction, the NWMP enforced the relocation of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands that lay in the path of the railway to a system of fixed reserves, thereby assisting in white settlement. The NWMP also effectively ended whiskey smuggling and put a check on the chaotic Klondike Gold Rush.[vii] In time, order was imposed over the frontier. 

The Dominion Police Force and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police 

Established in 1868, a few years before the NWMP, the Dominion Police Force operated primarily in the more densely-settled eastern portion of Canada (despite having formal jurisdiction over the entire country). Roughly analogous to later federal agencies such as the American FBI or ATF (or indeed, the modern RCMP), the DPF was responsible for state security functions, such as protecting government buildings, performing secret service work, and maintaining criminal records. 

In 1904, the DPF was merged with the now-Royal North-West Mounted Police to form the familiar Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP immediately took on much of the structure it maintains to this day. The RCMP provides provincial policing in every province save Ontario (OPP) and Quebec (SQ), as well as having jurisdiction over federal crimes and national security. 

The RCMP’s successes include: 

  • Establishing close working relationships with American authorities along the world’s longest undefended border
  • Maintaining some of the world’s lowest overall crime rates[viii]
  • Conducting their duties without many of the totalitarian curtailments of free speech and personal liberties that commonly arise in the name of creating order[ix][x] 

On the other hand, the RCMP has also at times been mired in controversy, including: 

  • Its role in propagating the residential school system[xi]
  • Crushing the peaceful On-to-Ottawa Trek for workers’ rights in the 1930s[xii]
  • The findings of the McDonald Commission, which found that during the 1970s the RCMP committed dozens of illegal acts of sabotage and surveillance against the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), Parti Québécois and Black Panther Party. As a result, the RCMP was stripped of its intelligence jurisdiction (which were assigned to the newly-formed Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS)[xiii] 

Law Enforcement Today: Community Policing 

The history of the police in Canada ongoing. Today, as noted, Canada remains one of the safest countries in the world, with a high relative standard of living and democratic freedoms. This degree of safety, however, varies throughout the country, with disadvantaged areas such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Toronto’s Jane and Finch suffering disproportionately high crime rates. A key challenge in contemporary policing is finding ways to create trust between officers and the communities they serve, where the police are sometimes viewed as an occupying force. 

Community policing is one trend that seeks to return to classical Peelian Principles, leavened with more recent sociological understandings of diversity and restorative justice. As we noted in our previous blog, “What is Community Policing?”,[xiv] programs which allow officers to interact on a human level with community members has been shown to significantly reduce: 

  • Friction between police and minority-majority communities
  • Incidence of police violence
  • Costs to the community versus those associated with incarceration 

Today’s police must understand that fulfilling their role in society requires nuance and consideration of sensitivities, which is a core plank of university policing and criminology programs. To learn more about how post-secondary institutions are educating future generations of police leadership, contact us to view the curriculum for Laurier’s online Bachelor’s in Policing program.



[i]   Statistics Canada. Police personnel and selected crime statistics.

[ii]  CBC News. “Number Of Police Officers Per Canadian Hits 13-year Low, Goodale Told.”

[iii] Britannica. The Development Of Police in Canada.

[iv] UK Government Home Office. Surveillance Camera Code of Practice.

[v] The Open University. Relations between the Police and Public.

[vi] Parks Canada. “The Cypress Hills Massacre National Historic Site of Canada.”

[vii]   The Canadian Encyclopedia. “The North-West Mounted Police.”

[viii]  The World Bank. “Intentional homicides (per 100,000 people).”

[ix] Reporters Without Borders. “2019 World Press Freedom Index.”

[x] “Freedom in the World 2019.”

[xi] CBC News. “RCMP ‘herded’ native kids to residential schools.”

[xii]   The Canadian Encyclopedia. “On to Ottawa Trek/Regina Riot.”

[xiii]  Library and Archives Canada. Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

[xiv]  WLU Blog. What is Community Policing?