The hearings around the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied parts of Ottawa in early 2022 have opened a window into the inner workings of Canadian police forces. The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) was widely criticized for its mishandling of the situation and, according to the testimony of interim Police Chief Steve Bell, was indeed “unprepared for what transpired.”
The hearings revealed that this lack of preparation largely resulted from how the police force framed and understood the protest. The OPS saw convoy protesters in a generally positive light, leading to complacency. Thus, a late January 2022 report from the OPS Security Intelligence Section assessed that the convoy was “less a professional protest with the usual sad players, but rather a truly organic grassroots event that is gathering momentum,” going on to stress that “the [anti-mandate] protests globally are made up almost entirely of middle-class members of society.”
As Professor Stephanie Carvin argues, the report was “effectively saying look, these are white middle-class people, they’re not going to engage in the kind of demonstrations that we’ve seen with Black Lives Matter or Indigenous protesters.” The hearings have also revealed that this sympathetic take led police officers to leak information to protesters, with leaks coming not only from the OPS but also from the Ontario Provincial Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The sympathetic framing of convoy protesters starkly contrasts with how Canadian police forces have approached protests and demonstrations by First Nations. As David Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan show in their book Policing Indigenous Movements, Canadian police forces have responded to Indigenous movements such as Idle No More through militarization and increased surveillance, framing them as criminal threats led by “extremists.” Crosby and Monaghan painstakingly document this framing through documents obtained via Access to Information requests. These include, for instance, an email from an RCMP Corporal noting that “This Idle No More Movement is like bacteria; it has grown a life of its own all across this nation. […] The escalation of violence is ever near.”
The clear differential treatment of Indigenous and white protesters supports abolitionist arguments that police forces were never meant to “protect and serve” all equally. Our recent article on the coloniality of global policing helps put these issues in historical and international perspective. We take stock of a dynamic interdisciplinary literature spanning history, sociology, criminology, and international relations that excavates the colonial origins of modern policing and foregrounds enduring patterns of coloniality in our contemporary world. Modern policing was forged in the crucible of colonialism and imperialism; to put it differently, colonialism is constitutive of modern policing.
Through the recursive circulation of people, discourses and practices between the colonies and the metropoles, policing in these two contexts was tightly intertwined. In the British empire, policing methods developed in one colony (such as Ireland) travelled to others (such as Canada, South Africa and Palestine) and to the metropole in a process that some have dubbed “cross-fertilization.” The London Metropolitan Police – long regarded as the model for civilian policing globally – was inspired by militarized methods deployed in the colonies, particularly in Ireland. The Met inspired the creation of police departments in the US and Canada, where it would serve as a model for policing in settler colonial contexts.
Circulation was possible because some segments of metropolitan populations were deemed to be similar to colonized populations and therefore warrant similar policing strategies. In the British empire, for example, discourses about internal and external “others” (the British poor and colonized populations) were intimately connected. As Zine Magubane argues in her book Bringing the Empire Home, the idea of blackness influenced conceptions of disadvantaged groups in Britain, such as women and the poor, and ideas about these groups, in turn, shaped conceptions of black Africans in British colonies. Thus, a British journalist could write in 1851 that the “moral characteristics” of “nomad races of other countries” could be used as “a means of comprehending more readily those of the vagabonds and outcasts of our own.”
This history challenges traditional boundaries between inside/outside, domestic/international, peace/war, police/military, and citizen/enemy. It complicates the widespread, seemingly commonsensical idea that policing is and has always been aimed at the internal order of states while the military deals with “anarchy” outside their borders. While debates on police “militarization” reflect justified concerns about contemporary policing discourses and strategies, they ironically reproduce an ahistorical understanding of policing that fails to account for its martial origins. Rather than binaries, police and military should be understood as belonging to a continuum. In other words, there is no pure non-militarized starting point because policing has been militarized from the very beginning.
Police have always constituted as ‘internal enemies’ the very populations that they sought to marginalize, and in so doing, often engaged in war-like activities to repress and excise. In Canada, the settler colonial context has particularly blurred the lines between peace and war, police and military. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (and the Northwest Mounted Police before it) spearheaded the colonial settler system through the enforcement of federal law across Indigenous territories, centring on land acquisition, the confinement of Indigenous peoples to reserves, and the imposition of a new system of governance. When put in the context of this history, the differential treatment of Indigenous and white protesters is hardly surprising.
Proponents of police reform often emphasize the need to make police forces more diverse and less biased. But the history of modern policing in Canada and beyond suggests that the selective understanding of police forces’ mission to “serve and protect” is a feature, not a bug.