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Opinion by Christin Cullen, Executive Director, John Howard York Region

Our current system for police background checks is a barrier to employment for far too many Canadians. It is preventing people from being able to move forward, take more responsibility and contribute to their community. The good news is that it can be easily fixed, without putting safety at risk. Here’s how.

Having a police record makes it difficult or impossible to find employment, to register for education and training programs or to pass professional licensing requirements. This is a growing problem. Millions of Canadians have a police record as a result of interactions with the criminal justice system.

It’s important to know that interactions with the criminal justice system that lead to a police record may not result in time spent in prison, or even a charge being laid. Police databases house information about criminal convictions, as well as other records of interactions.

Limitations of previous reform

The Police Record Check Reform Act addressed some of the issues with the disclosure of non-conviction records. However, information such as outstanding charges and court orders still appear on certain levels of record checks, and there is a long list of exemptions from the act. In addition, the act does not protect against discrimination in employment processes based on a criminal record.

In the report Invisible Burden, the John Howard Society of Ontario found that 60 per cent of employers required police record checks from prospective employees, and 15 per cent admit they would not hire someone with a police record. Research reveals the public views such individuals, even those with non-conviction records, to be less reliable, less honest and a greater risk. These barriers are compounded for marginalized individuals who are disproportionately represented in the justice system.

What we need to do

While the problem is big, the fix is rather simple. Ontario would not be breaking new ground, because it has already been implemented in other provinces. It involves amendments to the Human Rights Code. Currently, it protects against discrimination based on a “record of offences” which applies only to people who have received a pardon for a conviction under a federal law, or who are convicted under a provincial law. In other words, those with a conviction and no pardon and those with non-conviction records are not included in this group.

Including a broader definition of police records in the protected grounds under the Human Rights Code that includes both conviction and non-conviction records would mean employers would have to consider the nature of the record in relation to the position being applied for. It would not mean employers are prohibited from considering police records, but rather that any decision is based on a bona fide occupational requirement. Employers would have to examine the record and consider whether the offence would have a real effect on the person’s ability to do the job and risk associated with them doing it.

Hiring discrimination against individuals with a police record hurts our communities, rather than keeping them safe. If the goal is to prevent crime, barring employment for people with police records is taking us further from our mark. Improving access to employment can play an important role in creating safer and more thriving communities for us all.

For more information on police records and record suspensions (pardons), see

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