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Newcomers' relationship with Canadian police can be 'complicated'

ISS of BC’s Chris Friesen: “An individual’s migration experience can be triggered by an officer in a uniform.”
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police held a recent conference where leaders from across the country discussed the impact of immigration and policing.


That’s the word Chris Friesen used when discussing the relationship between newcomers to Canada and law enforcement.

On one hand, he said, it is important to educate people new to the country on the realities of policing in Canada, the 911 system, the courts and a person’s rights.

On the other hand, there is real concern that a newcomer’s bad experience with police or the military in their home country may make them fearful of all police.

“It requires a high degree of sensitivity, given the fact that many newcomers through the humanitarian stream [of immigration] are coming in with trauma related to their paramilitary, or their police force,” said Friesen, chief operating officer of Immigrant Services Society of BC.

“An individual’s migration experience can be triggered by an officer in a uniform.”

With 1.5 million newcomers projected to arrive in Canada over the next three years, with many choosing to settle in B.C., the need to find that “fine balance” between police and new residents is crucial to building better community, Friesen said.

Chris Friesen, chief operating officer of Immigrant Services Society of BC, outside Welcome House in Vancouver in 2016. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Oppression, corruption

It is a point the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police made at a national conference in August, where the topic was “policing in a changing Canada,” with an emphasis on the impact of immigration on policing.

The national association acknowledged in a news release that many newcomers originate from parts of the world where relationships between police and communities “differ significantly from our own.”

To many immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants and their families, policing is synonymous with oppression, corruption, political extremism and even warfare, the association said.

“It is critical that we seize the opportunity to positively influence their perception and expectations of policing and the justice system in Canada as soon as they arrive, so we can immediately begin to build healthy and positive relationships with them,” said Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth, who is president of the chiefs’ association, in the release.

So how do police do that?

In several ways, said Smyth in an interview, emphasizing many police agencies have existing programs in place to build relationships with newcomers. But new relationships also need to be forged as the world changes, and people seek residency in Canada.

Smyth pointed to the war in Ukraine as an example.

“The men, for the most part, are staying back in the Ukraine,” he said.

“Those bring different dynamics that we need to be aware of, and we want to make sure that women and children aren't vulnerable to harm and vulnerable to other predators that may be trying to take advantage of their circumstances.”

Vancouver police adopted in 2018 "access without fear" guidelines to encourage crime reporting by newcomers. Photo Mike Howell

New kids' program

In Vancouver, police have an existing relationship with Immigrant Services Society of BC, where officers visit with newcomers as part of an education program.

The department (VPD) also has a “new kids” program connected to the Vancouver School Board, where officers spend time with young people recently arrived from other countries.

“We take the kids out on the [police] boats and give them exposure to police and have them hang out with police so they see that basically police are your friend in Canada, much more so than a lot of the other countries,” said Sgt. Chad McRae of the VPD’s diversity, community and Indigenous relations section.

“A lot of the time, they're shocked that they can have a friendly conversation with a police officer.”

A goal in building those relationships, McRae said, is to encourage more reporting of crime to police. Under-reporting, he said, has been consistent in his 20 years as an officer, particularly from people whose home countries don't have free governments.

“In large part, it’s because of a distrust of police and authority,” he said.

In 2018, the VPD recognized there was a fear in some communities that calling police may end up with the caller or friend being deported.

The department instituted the “access without fear” guidelines, which gives direction to officers to not elicit information about the immigration status of a witness, complainant or victim “and not to enlist the assistance of Canada Border Services Agency on any investigation about a witness, complainant or victim, unless there is a legitimate, bona fide reason to do so.”

“There's always conflict [in the world], so there's always refugees coming to Canada,” McRae said. “So on a regular basis in some capacity, we’re running into these people, if not weekly, almost daily.”

In July 2021, police responded to a call of a man using a tree branch to cause damage to businesses, signs and vehicles in the downtown area of Robson and Chilco streets.

The man also attacked police with the branch.

Officers fired three rounds from a beanbag shotgun to subdue the man, who was a homeless refugee.

A report released Tuesday by the B.C. Prosecution Service announced charges would not be approved against the officers. The report said the man told investigators that he was angry with government about his immigration status.

"His income support payments had been stopped, he had no money and hadn't eaten for some time," the report said. "He was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs."

The man suffered cuts which required stitches and staples. He was also fitted with a cast for a broken left hand and forearm.

Where the man was from, or why he left his home country was not included in the report.


In some cases, McRae said, police will interact with newcomers who need mental health support related to fleeing another country.

Police will refer those people to the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, where experts on trauma provide resources for people traumatized by an event or experience in another country.

Frank Cohn, executive director of the association, said about 35 per cent of refugees and refugee claimants who arrive in Canada are identifiable as survivors of torture, as recognized by the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

“That's not to say that they can't and shouldn't trust police in Canada, but it means that it's a slightly longer trajectory for them, and there needs to be sensitivity and planning for that,” Cohn said.

It also has to be pointed out that there is a history of “discriminatory policing” in Canada, said Cohn, referring to previous reports by Glacier Media and other journalists that have shown a disproportionate number of Indigenous and Black people were subject of street checks by VPD.

“So it's one thing to say, yes, the police here are on your side, and they're going to take care of you,” he said. “While generally that may be true, we do need to acknowledge that history.”

Added Cohn: “If we're asking people to trust the police here, then I think there does need to be some acknowledgement that there is both a history and a tendency for discriminatory policing, still today in 2023.”

The flip side of the criticism of police from newcomers is that some want to become officers, which is another reason for the association’s commitment to make more inroads with people new to Canada.

While McRae was speaking to Glacier Media, he counted three of the eight officers sitting near him as being born in other countries. He didn’t have data on how many officers were born outside Canada or have parents who are immigrants.

“I couldn't tell you the percentage, but it's significant enough that on a daily basis I interact with people I work with who were born in different countries,” he said.

To better connect with people on the job, the VPD are in the early stages of setting up a service where officers will have access to a translator, via smart phone, when interacting with a person who doesn’t speak English.

“I can literally FaceTime any translator in any language at any time,” said McRae of the service.

Canada is projected to welcome 1.5 million newcomers over the next three years. Photo Mike Howell

'Prominent and accurate information'

Police, however, don’t believe connecting with newcomers should solely be the job of law enforcement.

In the lead-up to the chiefs’ national conference in August, association members adopted a resolution in July that calls on municipal, provincial and federal governments to include “prominent and accurate information” about the Canadian policing and judicial systems in education programs intended for newcomers.

In response to that call, a representative from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said in an email the primary objective of the organization’s settlement program is to support the social and economic integration of permanent residents so that they can succeed and contribute to Canadian society.

“Newcomers, including refugees, have access to a wide range of IRCC-funded settlement supports and services provided by service provider organizations,” said the email, noting the department’s investments in settlement services for newcomers have grown over time to support increases in immigration levels.

“Additionally, multiple resources are available on our website to help newcomers find information on Canadian laws, health care and how to get help settling in Canada.”

In 2023-2024, the federal government plans to invest $1.1 billion to support settlement needs of newcomers (outside of Quebec). This is an increase of 7.5 per cent from the previous year. All provinces and territories will see an increase in investment in their jurisdictions in 2023-24. 

Even so, Smyth said, it’s crucial that police work collaboratively with local governments, Public Safety Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada “so that they're not making decisions without consultation with us.”

“Us,” in this case, also means chiefs who were not born in Canada.

“There's a new chief in Montreal now that came over as an immigrant teenager,” said Smyth of the Cote d’Ivoire-born Fady Dagher to Lebanese parents.

“The chief in Lethbridge, Shahin Mehdizadeh — same thing, Iranian came over as a refugee [via New Delhi] as a teenager. So they bring a richness and a perspective that is important for us to understand.”

'Fair and equitable'

Meanwhile, both Friesen and Cohn say they welcome the commitment from the national chiefs’ association, with Friesen saying “it is about time that there is a formal, national recognition that this country's demographics are changing rapidly.”

At the same time, he remains concerned.

“There are little pockets of innovation across the country happening,” Friesen said. “But there are also pockets of real separation between certain organizations and the local police force.”

He referred to Vancouver Pride Parade organizers banning police from the annual parade as an example. The Vancouver chapter of Black Lives Matter has also pushed to “de-fund” the police department.

Friesen supports more cultural competency training for police, more innovative programs between police and newcomers and more education pre-arrival of people leaving or fleeing another country for Canada.

Cohn believes a bigger push by police to recruit officers from diverse communities would also reduce conflict and barriers between newcomers and police.

“The more that police forces can reflect the population, the more fair and equitable they will be, and then the less discrimination we will typically see,” he said.

“The reality is that police forces tend to have a lot of old guys who don't necessarily see things that way. So as much as the chiefs can release a statement, if [some officers] on the ground are still working with the approaches they were using 10, 20, 30 years ago, then it's not going to change much.”

Note: This story has been updated since first posted to include details of a report released Tuesday by the B.C. Prosecution Service related to an arrest of a homeless refugee in Vancouver.

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