Race and Drug Crime in Canada

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The relationship between race and crime has always been a complex one, and Canada is not immune to criticisms surrounding the controversial topic. Although race in relation to crime rates is not recorded in Canada, as it is in other countries, making it difficult to find relevant data, several independent studies by interest groups have been conducted that help to shed light on the subject. This page looks primarily at race and drug related crime in Canada in order to investigate the correlation between the two variables. It has been found that both black and Indigenous populations, while making up a minority in the Canadian population, are dramatically overrepresented in the federal prison system, especially for drug related crime. [1] Studies have also shown that black males are far more likely to be stopped and questioned by police than their white counterparts and that predominantly ‘visible minority’ communities are subjected to a higher police presence than predominantly white communities. [2]There exists a noticeable intersectionality between socio-economic status and race. Poor, visible minority individuals have higher rates of arrest and conviction consequently contributing to a detrimental cycle of poverty and crime. These intersections can be explored by the help of two historical examples: Chinese immigrants and the Opium Act of 1909 and the Aboriginal Reserve system and the Indian Act of 1876.


Drug Crime

Criminal acts involving drugs in Canada fall under the jurisdiction of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) which was created in 1996. Under this act, drugs are classified into eight schedules (I-VIII) each representing various types of drugs and controlled substances and their accompanying charge if found guilty, whether that be a fine or jail time. There are three major distinctions in terms of drug crime outlined in the CDSA. These include, according to the CDSA [3] :

  • Drug possession: "means possession within the meaning of subsection 4(3) of the Criminal Code"
  • Drug trafficking: "means, in respect of a substance included in any of Schedules I to V,
    • (a) to sell, administer, give, transfer, transport, send or deliver the substance,
    • (b) to sell an authorization to obtain the substance, or
    • (c) to offer to do anything mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b) otherwise than under the authority of the regulations"
  • Drug production: "means, in respect of a substance included in any of Schedules I to V, to obtain the substance by any method or process including
    • (a) manufacturing, synthesizing or using any means of altering the chemical or physical properties of the substance, or
    • (b) cultivating, propagating or harvesting the substance or any living thing from which the substance may be extracted or otherwise obtained"

Illicit Drug

A controlled substance or precursor the import, export, production, sale or possession of which is prohibited or restricted pursuant to the CDSA [3]


"The process of creating difference based on racial categories, identities and meanings, and can be used to legitimize the domination of one racial group over another" - Marshall, S.G. 2015 [4] More on racialization

A Brief History

Two Key Examples

The history of discrimination and oppression in Canada serves as an important starting point to understanding the racialized criminal justice system. Two key examples are discussed below: the experience of Chinese immigrants in early 20th century, and the relationship between settlers and Aboriginal populations in early Canadian history. These key moments in Canadian history are only two examples of the diverse and multifaceted conceptualization of crime in Canada.

Chinese Immigrants

1858 marked the start of prominent Chinese immigration to Canada. There were a number of push and pull factors which encouraged Chinese immigrants to make the journey to the new ‘land of opportunity.’ Such factors included lack of farmable land and foreign competition in China, Canadian gold and opportunities for labour work. [5] However, new immigrants faced considerable discrimination and racist governmental policy. One of the mot targeted laws surrounded the use of Opium, a narcotic analgesic. In the 19th century, laudanum, a mixture of liquid Opium and alcohol, was a popular pain remedy particularly in Chinese immigrant communities.

Chinese labourers, detraining camp, Petawawa, Ontario

Prior to the 20th century there were no laws governing the use of Opium or any other drugs in Canada. [6] William Lyon Mackenzie King, the deputy minister of labour, began to study the use of Opium and was concerned about its widespread use especially concerning the commonly held assumption that Chinese men used Opium to sexually assault white women. [6] As a result, the government of Canada passed the Opium Act in 1909, prohibiting the “importation, manufacture and sale of opium for other than medicinal purposes.” [7] There were clear links between this new policy and a vehement anti-Chinese immigrant narrative present during this period. After Mackenzie King became Prime Minister, the Opium Act was more widely enforced and possession of Opium was made illegal. Law enforcement targeted Chinese immigrants who were believed to be the main suppliers and users of drugs.

Aboriginal Reserves

In 1876, the Indian Act was established which allowed the Canadian government to have increased control over most aspects of Aboriginal life in Canada (status, land, education, bands etc.) [8] Until the early 1950s this act represented the assumption that Aboriginals and their culture were inferior to the Euro-Canadian settlers and that assimilation was the only solution to improve social relations within Canada [9] The act allowed the Canadian government to define Aboriginal status, including the ability to arbitrarily strip an individual of said status. For example, until 1985, Aboriginal women who married a non-Aboriginal man would automatically lose their status as would any future children born to the couple. [9]

Soda Creek Indian Reserve, July 25 1914

Such distinctions led to the creation of ‘non-status Indians’, those who identified as Aboriginal but where not recognized as such by the Canadian government. In the process of attempting to eradicate the Aboriginal culture, the Indian Act had detrimental effects for the criminalization of many aspects of Aboriginal behaviour. [10] Such offences included the prohibition of “Indian dancing” at agricultural exhibitions in Manitoba and was punishable by a $25 fine or a months jail time. [11] Throughout history, the Act has remained invasive and paternalistic, regulating the everyday lives of Aboriginals on and off reserves. The ability of the Canadian government to determine and impose land bases, status claims and many other restrictive statutes has resulted in alienation, discriminatory practice and has led to complex and negative relationships between the Aboriginal communities of Canada and the Canadian justice system. [8] The consequences of these practices will be discussed in more detail in the subsequent sections.

What does this mean in the modern context?

These examples prove that the history of systematic racism in Canada is very multifaceted. The history of discriminatory drug laws targeted at Chinese immigrants is an example that helps us better understand the origins of the drug laws we have in place today - which come from a distinctly racial viewpoint. Similarly, the detrimental and intergenerational effects resulting from the Indian Act contributes the conversation surrounding the intersectionality of drug crime. The historical legacy of discrimination faced by Aboriginal populations may provide part of the answer as to why this minority group is overrepresented in substance related crimes and convictions.


Canada has an international reputation for being a hub of multicultural inclusivity. Our diverse, multi-ethnic population is championed as one of the best selling points for life in Canada. However, like many other countries, Canada has not been immune to controversy surrounding treatment of 'visible minorities' and immigrants, a prominent historical example of which being the relationship between settlers and Aboriginal communities. The tables below represent a demographic profile of Canada taken from a Statistics Canada 2011 National Household Survey. It is important to understand these demographics before delving into the relationship between race and crime in Canada.

Visible Minority Population and Top Three Visible Minority Groups, Major Canadian Cities

Total Population Visible Minority Population Top 3 Visible Minority Groups
Canada 32,852,325 6,264,755 (19.1%) South Asian, Chinese, Black
Toronto 5,521,235 2,596,420 (47.0%) South Asian, Chinese, Black
Montreal 3,752,475 762,325 (20.3%) Black, Arab, Latin American
Vancouver 2,280,695 1,030,335 (45.2%) Chinese, South Asian, Filipino
Ottawa 1,215,735 234,015 (19.2%) Black, Arab, Chinese
Calgary 1,199,125 337,420 (28.1%) South Asian, Chinese, Filipino
Edmonton 1,139,585 254,990 (22.4%) South Asian, Chinese, Filipino
Winnipeg 714,635 140,770 (19.7%) Filipino, South Asian, Black
Hamilton 708,175 101,600 (14.3%) South Asian, Black, Chinese

Source: Statistics Canada, National Household Survey, 2011. [12]

‘Visible minority’ is a uniquely Canadian term which is used to describe an individual who is non-Aboriginal, non-Caucasian in race or non-white in skin colour (i.e. black, South Asian, Hispanic). While a widely-used term in Canadian legislation, ‘visible minority’ fails to appreciate the diverse experiences and origins of various racial minorities. [2] 2016 Canadian census data suggests that visible minorities in Canada are better educated than white-Canadian born individuals yet find it more difficult to find employment or work in low level jobs.[13] These challenges contribute to cycles of poverty and discrimination.

Aboriginal Populations in Canada

Aboriginal Identity Number
Total Aboriginal Identity Population 1,400,685
First Nations Single Identity 851,560 (60.8%)
Métis Single Identity 451,795 (32.3%)
Inuit Single Identity 59,440 (4.2%)
Multiple Aboriginal Identities 11,415 (0.8%)
Aboriginal Identities Not Included Elsewhere 26,470 (1.9%)

Source: Statistics Canada, National Household Survey, 2011. [14]

Race and Drug Crime

A selection of illegal drugs

While it is difficult to find race and crime related statistics from the Canadian government, a number of independent studies have been conducted to examine this relationship. One of the most cited studies, the Toronto Youth Crime Victimization Survey (2000), examined approximately 3.400 youth from the greater Toronto area from various visible minorities groups to attempt to better understand the dynamic between the Canadian justice system and racial minorities. The study found that white students were more involved with illegal drugs than their black counterparts [15] :

  • 45% of white students reported they had used marijuana sometime in their life compared to 39% of black students
  • 6% of white students had used cocaine or crack compared to 2% of black students
  • 13% of white students had used other illegal drugs compared to 3% of black students

The study also found that 17% of white students reported that they had sold illegal drugs in their life compared to 15% of black students. This is a particularly pertinent finding as other research has suggested that black people are greatly over-represented with respect to drug possession and trafficking arrests and convictions.[2]

Shutterstock 91983935.jpg

A number of surveys and studies have corroborated the fact that the black community is subject to much greater levels of police scrutiny. Consequently, black people are much more likely to be caught when they break the law than white people who participate in the same types of crimes. [16] In the same Toronto survey, 65% of black drug dealers (those who had sold drugs ten or more times in the past 12 months) reported that they had been arrested at some time in their life. [2] Comparably, only 35% of white drug dealers reported being arrested in their lifetime. This suggests that racial profiling may explain the discrepancies in drug charges and incarceration rates in North America.

In another Toronto study, an analysis of over 10,000 arrests for drug possession revealed that black suspects are much more likely than white suspects to be taken to the police station for processing.[2] White suspects, under scrutiny for similar crimes, are more likely to be released at the scene. Once at the police station, black suspects are held overnight for a bail hearing at two times the rate of white suspects. Other relevant factors affecting these rates include age, criminal history, employment status and gender.[2]

Other minority groups face similar discrepancies in terms of arrest rates, pretrial decisions and conviction rates. The Manitoban Aboriginal Justice Inquiry found that Aboriginal accused are more likely to be denied bail and spend lengthier periods in pre-trial detention than their white counterparts. [16] Aboriginal defendants are also often subject to a greater number of pre-trial release conditions making it more likely that they will be found breaking these conditions resulting in longer incarceration time.

The legacy of the "Sixties Scoop" (when Indigenous children were removed from their families and adopted by non-Indigenous families) fuelled family and social dislocation and has perpetuated the high rates of Indigenous children in the Canadian welfare system. [1] As these children age out of the system, they often incur high rates of homelessness and inadequate social support systems. Due to a multitude of factors including systematic marginalization and cultural oppression, substance abuse has become one of the major concerns in Aboriginal communities. [1] The intersection of cultural oppression, economic exclusion, and the intergenerational experience of traumatic colonial practice has created this pervasive and ever-growing problem. For many people coping with these challenges, drugs and alcohol can be a comforting self-medicating practice. While Indigenous populations make up only approximately 4% of the Canadian population, they represent nearly 23% of the federal inmate population. [1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Marshall, S.G. (2015) Canadian drug policy and the reproduction of indigenous inequalities. The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 6(1).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Wortley S & Owusu-Bempah Akwasi (2012) Race, ethnicity, crime and criminal justice in Canada In A. Kalunta-Crumpton (Ed.), Race, ethnicity, crime and criminal justice in the americas. New York, NY: Houndmills. 10.1057/9780230355866.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. (2018). Laws-lois.justice.gc.ca. Retrieved 10 March 2018, from http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-38.8/page-1.html#h-4.
  4. Marshall, S.G. (2015) Canadian drug policy and the reproduction of indigenous inequalities. The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 6(1) pg. 1.
  5. History of Canada's early Chinese immigrants - Library and Archives Canada. (2017). Bac-lac.gc.ca. Retrieved 11 March 2018, from https://www.baclac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/history-ethnic-cultural/early-chinesecanadians/Pages/history.aspx#whya3.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Levine, A. (2013, August). Canada's 100-year war on drugs: Trudeau latest in long line of Liberals at forefront of narcotics laws. Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved from https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/canadas-100-year-war-on-drugs-218195622.html.
  7. Solomon, E. (2017, April). A bad trip: Legalizing pot is about race. Maclean’s. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/a-bad-trip-legalizing-pot-is-about-race/.
  8. 8.0 8.1 The Indian Act. (2018). Indigenousfoundations.web.arts.ubc.ca. Retrieved 11 March 2018, from http://indigenousfoundations.web.arts.ubc.ca/the_indian_act/
  9. 9.0 9.1 Chan, W., & Mirchandani, K. (2001;2008;1999;). Crimes of colour: Racialization and the criminal justice system in canada. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.10.3138/j.ctt2tv1ct.
  10. Corrado, R. R., Kuehn, S., & Margaritescu, I. (2014). Policy issues regarding the overrepresentation of incarcerated aboriginal young offenders in a canadian context. Youth Justice, 14(1), 40-62. 10.1177/1473225413520361.
  11. Pettipas, Katherine. (1995) Serving the ties that bind: Government repression of indigenous religious ceremonies on the prairies. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
  12. Statistics Canada, 2011 National Household Survey, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-011-X2011026.
  13. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016286.
  14. Statistics Canada, 2011 National Household Survey, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-010-X2011029.
  15. Tanner, J., Wortley, S., & University of Toronto. Centre of Criminology. (2002). The Toronto youth crime & victimization survey: Overview report. Toronto: Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Wortley, S. (2003). Hidden intersections: Research on race, crime, and criminal justice in canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, 35(3), 99.