a very brief history of the police in british north america

a summary of the most important facts up to confederation (1867)

as you might expect, the police and policing in European colonies was modeled on the police system of the colonial power, i.e., British colonies followed the British model of policing, French colonies, the French model.


after the conquest of new france by the british, the french colony was put under the british model.

there were, not surprisingly, important differences between policing in the mother country and in the colonies.  for example, due to the lack of a landed gentry (minor nobles with property) in British North America (BNA), in rural areas the middle-class was more responsible for law and order.

it is also essential to remember that private security such as the pinkerton detective agency had a significant role in preserving capitalist and colonial law and order.

in britain and british north america, policing in rural and urban areas developed differently, with the new police emerging first in cities – the exception being the creation of the royal irish constabulary (RIC) to help maintain british rule over ireland.  the RIC model influenced police forces in BNA following the rebellions in upper and lower Canada in 1837-38, and police forces in british colombia and newfoundland, as well as the ontario provincial police.

traditionally the story of the police has begun with the metropolitan police act of 1829, which created the metropolitan police of london.   however , recently historians have been challenging this version of events, and have emphasized that there were functioning police forces prior to 1829, although they did not function in the same way as a modern police force.  prior to the creation of modern police in BNA policing was done by magistrates, justices of the peace, constables, bailiffs, and the night watch.

this “old” police system was done by people who were amateurs (not trained), worked part-time (had other jobs), were primarily paid by third parties, not the state, did not have uniforms, and were members of their communities.  indeed, constables frequently relied on help from community members in finding and arresting law-breakers, and feared reprisal from community members opposed to their actions.

the backbone of this system were the magistrates and the constables.  Magistrates were usually a part of the local elite, while constables “tended to be respectable members of the village or parish, the…yeomen and artisan class”. (Marquis, p. 8)  then, as now, the criminal injustice system served the interests of the ruling class, and specifically targeted certain oppressed groups, such as indigenous people, immigrants, “disrespectable” poor and working-class  people and prostitutes, for example.


historian greg marquis places the emergence of the “new” or modern police in british north american cities between the war of 1812 and the adoption of “colonial responsible government” by the 1850s.  the new police were full-time professionals, paid by the state, and wore uniforms – what we today would generally recognize as police.  the creation of modern police forces was highly localized and varied from city to city – there was no provincial or overarching policy in british north America, different from in britain.

in rural areas, the old police continued up into the 20th century.  the ontario provincial police (OPP), for example, the first new police force for rural Ontario was not created until 1909, and initially was “a skeleton force with limited impact on the province”. (Greg Marquis, p. 53).

while the old police, for better or for worse, were tightly connected to the community, the new police were not, and the trend has been for the police to become increasingly separated from the communities they police.  police officers have become increasingly loyal to their own police institutions and to the government.

the police reform which led to the new police came with an increase in police powers and the ability, “right” and legitimacy of state surveillance and interference in the lives of ordinary people.  when the london metropolitan police were originally created in 1829 there was widespread resistance from working-class and poor people to the new police, and it was not rare for police officers to be assaulted and disrespected.  today the police are considered a normal and legitimate agency by the mainstream, although it is important to note that they work hard to protect, preserve and increase this legitimacy.



the vigilant eye: policing in canada from 1867 to 9/11 by greg marquis

understanding policing, Kevin R>E> McCormick and Livy A. Visano, Eds

magistrates, police and people: everyday crimanal justice in quebec and lower canada1764 – 1837

racialized policing: aboriginal people’s encounters with the police, by elizabeth comack



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