There is no formal, systematic process for publicly recording and reporting information about people who have been killed by police in Canada and the circumstances of those deaths. One result of this is that the Canadian public perhaps greatly underestimates the number of people left dead through interactions with police in Canada.
At the start of my criminology classes, I ask students how many people they think are killed by police in Canada each year. Many of them believe it to be fewer than a dozen, an estimate I see expressed often on social media as well.
The public is left with an inaccurate view of the issue and is given to be a bit complacent about the real toll of killings by police in Canada—unlike the situation in the U.S., for example, where police killings of civilians are reported in much greater detail (including names of officers responsible) and are documented by various sources.
There is more transparency in the U.S., and information is made available publicly with less delay. Even basic information, like the names of victims, is not released publicly in Canada. Victims’ names are typically only given where family members release them or in rare cases where there are charges against officers.
The main source tracking, documenting, and analyzing police killings in Canada is the criminology project Killer Cops Canada. Journalists have also taken up the cause in local contexts, such as the work done by the Georgia Straight and journalist Travis Lupick on police killings in British Columbia.
A baseline number can be arrived at by reviewing reports from provincial policing-oversight bodies (like the Special Investigations Unit in Ontario and the Independent Investigations Office of B.C.), coroners’ reports, and media articles. The work at Killer Cops Canada brings some of that information together in one place.
A look at the available information shows that at least 65 people died in connection with police interactions in Canada in 2017.
The provincial and territorial breakdown is as follows:
British Columbia: six deaths
Alberta: 10 deaths
Saskatchewan: four deaths
Manitoba: six deaths
Ontario: 22 deaths
Quebec: 15 deaths
Nunavut: two deaths
Three deaths occurred on First Nations.
Of the police forces concerned, the RCMP were responsible for the most police-involved deaths, with 14. This is no surprise, given its activity as the national force, a provincial force in several provinces, and as a municipal force in cities like Surrey, B.C. The Edmonton Police Service, Winnipeg Police Service, and Sûreté du Québec were involved with five deaths each. Montreal police were involved with four deaths. Peel Regional Police and the Ontario Provincial Police were involved in three each.
In terms of causes of death, by far the largest number of victims of police violence were shot to death. There were 29 people shot and killed by police in Canada. Next were in-custody deaths (for many of which specific causes were not given), a perhaps surprising number of 18. These only include police-custody deaths, not those under supervision of correctional officers. Five people died in police vehicle chases. Three were identified as “self-inflicted” (and some of these are, of course, contested by family and community members). One person died of a heart attack during a police encounter, and one was said by police to have died of “sudden death.” One young victim was killed in a hit-and-run by an officer suspected of DUI. Not all were directly killed by police; some died after interactions.
Although the numbers are limited and not all information has been made available publicly, the information that is available suggests that black and Indigenous victims disproportionately died through police interactions. Four victims were publicly identified as black, while six victims were identified as Indigenous. And there are, no doubt, others who have not been identified publicly. For what it is worth, 55 victims have been identified as male and 10 as female. To know more, we would need precisely the details withheld by police and oversight bodies.
The lack of systematic public information and documentation of police killings of civilians has frustrated family members of victims, community advocates, and scholars and researchers alike. It has posed a barrier to detailed analysis and understanding of factors involved in police harming of civilians in Canada. For many, it impedes accountability and reform of policing practices and organizational structures as well as properly dealing with cops who kill.
It leaves grieving families unacceptably, and painfully, in the dark, searching for answers that are not forthcoming. It leaves communities asking about how and why they are policed and about the ways that they are policed. It raises questions about the transparency and legitimacy of state institutions (not only police but would-be oversight agencies like the SIU and IIO).
And it needs to change.
Jeff Shantz is a full-time faculty member in the department of criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University on Coast Salish territories (in Metro Vancouver). He is the founder of the Critical Criminology Working Group and cofounding member of the Social Justice Centre at KPU, where he is lead researcher on the Anti-Poverty/Criminalization/Social War Policing project.