RCMP raising concerns about Liberals' changes to criminal background checks

The RCMP is taking issue with changes the Liberal government made to criminal background checks and the pardons system, pointing to cases of people with "disturbing" records applying to work with vulnerable individuals, CBC News has learned.

Criminal Records Act gives federal public safety minister power to alert organizations about a pardoned record

Three preschool kids play with colourful blocks.
People working with children and the elderly are often asked to provide a criminal background check. The RCMP is raising issues with the way the Liberal government is disclosing pardoned offences. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

The RCMP is taking issue with changes the Liberal government made to criminal background checks and the pardons system, pointing to cases of people with "disturbing" records applying to work with vulnerable individuals, CBC News has learned.

The force's concerns were summarized in a briefing note prepared by public safety staff to update Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale on the changes to the system.

The issue is how criminal background checks conducted by police for people applying to work with individuals considered "vulnerable" — children and the elderly, for example — are handled in cases where a person has received a record suspension, commonly known as a pardon.

A record suspension helps give a past offender a clean slate when it comes to renting an apartment or applying for a job. But the offence isn't completely erased, just set aside. Criminal background checks required under vulnerable sector regulations do turn up those record suspensions, mainly previous sex offences.

The federal public safety minister has the final say when it comes to disclosing someone's past criminal record under vulnerable sector regulations — even if they've had an offence suspended.

The Criminal Records Act calls on the minister to take a number of factors into consideration in such cases, including whether the suspended offence involved violence, children or a breach of trust.

Undeniably, these offences are disturbing.- Memo to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale

If the disclosure is approved, a copy of the suspended record is returned to the applicant and the police service that oversaw the request. If it's denied, the background check is returned as having found "no record."

Conservative government disclosed more

Starting in 2016, the Liberal government made changes to the process to weigh the act's provisions alongside new evidence and research.

Public safety officials prepared a briefing note for Goodale on the status of the changes last year. It says the government should take "into account current research findings demonstrating that sex offenders who have remained crime-free for 20 years or more have a similar or lower risk to reoffend than the general population."

Research also shows that sex offenders who were 24 years old and younger "could be considered immature at the time and less likely to reoffend," says the briefing note.

As a result of the changes, there have been fewer disclosures of pardoned criminal records under the Trudeau government.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has called the criminal pardons system 'punitive.' (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Former Conservative public safety minister Vic Toews delegated his signing power over to the department's director general of crime prevention in 2011.

"Between 2011 and 2015, almost all vulnerable sector requests seeking disclosure of a pardoned record were approved," the briefing note says. In 2015, for example, 95 per cent of all vulnerable sector disclosures were approved.

But in 2016, the year changes were made, only 38 per cent of disclosure requests were approved.

"The RCMP has expressed their concern with this approach," Goodale was told in the briefing note.

RCMP working to 'ensure the integrity' of system

For months, the RCMP have been sending Public Safety information to support approving more disclosures of suspended records. At one point, RCMP flagged three cases up for disclosure.

The details of the cases were redacted in the Access to Information Request, but Public Safety acknowledged their severity in the briefing note.

"Undeniably, these offences are disturbing and this information is important to have in assessing [vulnerable sector] disclosure requests," it reads.

Kim Pate, who has spent most her life fighting for the rights of women in prison, says background checks aren't the only way to stop abuse. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Despite flagging the issue to the department, the RCMP refused to comment on the specifics in the briefing note.

"The RCMP has provided Public Safety in the past further information on the nature of the offence with respect to individual cases. However, this type of information often does not reside in the RCMP's information holdings and may or may not still be held by the police service originally involved in the handling of the offence," said spokesperson Sgt. Marie Damian.

"The RCMP continues to work very closely with Public Safety to ensure the integrity of the vulnerable sector regime in the context of the privacy rights of Canadians and community safety."

A spokesperson for Goodale said the government's decision process still sticks to the criteria laid out in the Criminal Records Act.

"Vulnerable sector checks provide essential information to employers, school administrators and others responsible for vulnerable groups so that they can make good decisions about potential employees and volunteers. These checks help keep our most vulnerable safe," Scott Bardsley said.

"The RCMP has been providing additional information to better support these determinations."

Background checks not a catch-all: senator

Independent Sen. Kim Pate, the former head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said background checks aren't the only way to protect daycares and nursing homes from those wishing to do harm.

"Of course we want to see protections. What we know, though, is criminal record checks (are) not the most effective way to prevent those kinds of abuses," she said.

"The majority of people who have committed offences, whether it's sexual offences or others, are in fact not even sometimes reported, certainly not prosecuted."

The Senate is reviewing Bill C-66, which gives the Parole Board of Canada jurisdiction to order, or refuse to order, the expungement of convictions for any of a list of past Criminal Code offences that includes gross indecency, buggery and anal intercourse. It was introduced when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to LGBT Canadians for "systematic oppression."

Pate said she's been talking about the need for a more robust conviction review scheme that would allow some convictions to expire.


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca


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