All three major provincial political parties are vowing legislative reform to protect innocent Ontarians from police background checks containing unproven allegations and mental health incidents following a Star investigation.
The Conservatives became the last of the three parties committing to post-election victory action on an issue that impacts tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of Ontarians whose careers, volunteer work, university training or ability to travel to the U.S. can be undermined by the disclosure of unproven allegations, withdrawn charges, secret police surveillance notes or even mental health calls to 911.
“I do see it as a problem if there’s non-criminal information being released,” said Conservative MPP Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa) in an interview. “There seems to be a piecemeal approach taken by police forces across the province. I would definitely be in favour of studying this with a view to having legislation that can be enforced across the province.”
That legislation should govern the sharing of all non-criminal information ranging from mental health records — which have been cited by U.S. border officials denying Canadians access to the U.S. — to unproven charges and allegations that can appear on employment background checks, she said.
“The privacy issues are so important here and can have a huge impact on people’s lives,” she said. “People shouldn’t be held back by information that may or may not be relevant to a police check that isn’t criminal in nature. I think we need discussion around that and I think there’s wide support for that within the party.. . . I think a review is long overdue.”
Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne said last week she has been working hard to address non-criminal police disclosures documented in the Star series.
“It is important we address this issue while striking the right balance between community protection and personal freedom.”
With an election victory Thursday, Wynne said she would continue to work with “community partners, as we have been doing since I became premier, to respond to their recommendations through legislative or other changes.”
Jagmeet Singh, NDP justice critic and candidate in Bramalea-Gore-Malton, said the presumption of innocence represents a “fundamental pillar of our legal system and New Democrats are committed to protecting this important right. An NDP government will work with Ontarians to bring forward the legislative changes that are needed to properly address these concerns.”
Human rights advocates, lawyers and privacy officials have welcomed the political responses.
“The growing demand for police record checks, combined with the lack of adequate regulation around the release of non-conviction information, has caused untold suffering for many Ontarians, and this requires redress,” said Michelle Keast, director of the Centre of Research, Policy & Program Development at the John Howard Society of Ontario.
Toronto criminal lawyer John Struthers said privacy in the information age is “a critical issue that needs to be addressed forcefully.”
Ottawa criminologist Darryl Davies said amendments to the province’s Police Services Act should establish a “transparent and accountability framework for police records” detailing what information police can collect, how it can be used and when it can be disclosed to third parties.
Those who breach it should face “discreditable conduct with significant penalties,” he said.
Meanwhile, legal challenges are also taking shape in the aftermath of the Star series with several lawyers interviewed saying they are researching possible court actions.
“I have clients prepared to go forward and we’re considering bringing an action,” said Toronto lawyer Barry Swadron.
Ottawa lawyer Michael Crystal was in Toronto last week interviewing potential clients profiled in the Star investigation for a possible class action suit.
“The point of a class action is to scrutinize the improprieties and force the custodians of the information to act properly. This is very frightening.”
With files from Robert Benzie