The legacy of the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has manifested into global Black Lives Matter demonstrations as well as sustained calls to defund and reform contemporary police departments.
Driving the news: A recent Ipsos poll commissioned by Global News found that 51% of Canadians support the idea of defunding the police, with significant divide along generation lines. Since police budgets in Canada are largely a municipal issue, this story will observe how cities around the country have responded to calls to defund and reform the police.
The role of the police: As of 2018, Canada has a police force of roughly 68,500 officers falling under regional and federal departments, mandated to “keep the peace” by enforcing the law and keeping Canadians safe.
- However, critics argue that the public funding provided to police services could be reduced and re-invested to other essential aspects of societal life which could continue to decrease crime, but in a more holistic way.
- Proposals put forward by organizations such as Black Lives Matter Canada call for a demilitarization of the police which would reduce the budget spent on weapons and tactical teams while also reducing the scope of their operations.
- Finally, police brutality and needless deaths during the conducting of recent “wellness checks” which have resulted in the deaths of five Canadians in the last two month have fuelled the desire for a police-free, community-led, trauma-informed emergency service for mental health/psychiatric distress and other forms of crisis.
What do Canadians think? The recent Ipsos poll found that 51% of Canadians support the idea of defunding the police and redirecting those funds to other local government services, while 49% opposed the idea.
- There is a significant divide along generational lines with a majority of Gen Z (77%) and Millennials (63%) being supportive while only a minority of Gen X (47%) and Boomers (39%) being supportive.
- At the provincial level, 56% of British Columbians Supported the idea, followed by Manitoba (56%), Quebec (54%), Atlantic Canada (51%), Ontario (49%) and Alberta (48%).
So are cities defunding the police? Generally, no. Canadian cities and their mayors have engaged in conversations about minor aspects of reform but only a few cities, to this point, have explicitly decreased or redirected police funding. Here is what the cities are saying:
- Victoria, BC has said it will review the gender and ethnic composition of its police force but its police chief is against funding cuts stating his department is already underfunded.
- Vancouver, BC which has a $340 million policing budget, in May, failed to agree on a 1% funding cut suggested by the city council, with Mayor Kennedy Stewart choosing the defer to the province. Meanwhile, Premier Horgan has called defunding a “simplistic approach”.
- Surrey, BC has since 2018 been working on creating a municipal police force to replace the RCMP which should be up and running by 2021.
- Calgary, AB which has faced calls to shift funding from its $400 million police budget, the city’s largest expenditure, but has seen no action by its mayor or council.
- Edmonton, AB has had its city council cut police spending by $11 million over two years (3%) and has announced 19 steps towards reform including creating a safety and well-being task force over the next year.
- Regina, SK has said that its crime rates are too high to reallocate funds.
- Winnipeg, MB has spoken favourably about reducing police funding if the funds are predicted to social services, but Premier Brian Pallister has taken a strong stance against defunding.
- Toronto, ON has faced escalated calls for defunding following the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. However, at the end of June, Toronto city council voted against decreasing the city’s $1.2 billion police budget by 10%
- Ottawa, ON has engaged in conversations over reallocating parts of its $358 million police budget, however, Mayor Jim Watson has stated he is not in favour of cutting spending.
- Hamilton, ON has seen weeks of outcry for police reform recently manifested in “DEFUND THE POLICE” being painted on its main street. Following this, Chief of police Eric Girt stated that he would be open to more funding for increased mental health funding and allowing other agencies to respond to non-life-threatening crises.
- Montreal QC‘s Mayor Valerie Plante has said stated openness to the discussion on the reallocation of funding but said it would be a difficult conversation.
- Halifax, NS has dropped its plan to purchase an armoured vehicle and will relocate funds towards tackling anti-Black racism and public safety.
- New Brunswick which has faced a multitude of recent death at the hands of the police has so far failed to engage in a conversation around defunding the police.
What about the RCMP? Serious questions have been asked about systemic racism within Canada’s RCMP following two deaths in New Brunswick at the hands of Mounties and striking videos circulating online of an officer hitting a Nunavut man with his truck and the violent arrest of Chief Allan Adam in Alberta.
- Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet members have been quick to “call out” existing racism and faults within the RCMP, with Minister of Crown Indigenous-Relations Carolyn Bennett Tweeting “the system isn’t broken, it was built that way.” Yet these words have not been followed by action with only a half-hearted program to increase body cameras currently being worked on.
The Bottom Line: While the latest poll shows only a slim majority of Canadians supporting defunding the police, it represents a huge shift in public approval for a movement which has now become mainstream.
- Mayors and city councils around the country have so far failed to act on calls to meaningfully defund and reform their local police departments, yet there is no indication of support for the movement decreasing, especially as support for it among the youth is over 65%.
- Funding for the police usually represents the largest expenditure for cities, and so it would seem unlikely that there are no ways for cities to reallocate some of those funds towards more holistic, less violent forms of community protection.