As of June of 2015, police in Ontario will not provide information about any interaction with law enforcement that did not end in charges being laid against the person in their background checks. Toronto police announced that those requesting background checks under the “Vulnerable Sector Screening Program” will no longer receive information about mental health-related incidents with police. This decision comes in the wake of a nationwide movement to destigmatize people suffering from mental health issues and help end discrimination towards them.
The reason mental health information was initially included in background checks was due to a “[w]idespread discrimination […] based on the false assumption that mental health issues equal dangerousness,” according to Jennifer Chambers, representative for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Empowerment Council.
In the past, any incidents regarding mental health – such as suicide attempts or witnessing a crime – were openly available to employers who wanted to perform background checks on potential employees. This often prevented people who were not actually convicted or even charged with any crime from getting employment. It also caused charity organizations to turn away volunteers over what were ultimately non-conviction-related issues.
Even less pertinent information, like simply being a relative of someone who had committed a crime, was available to anyone who requested and received a police background check. This was deemed to be a gross infraction of a Canadian citizen’s right to privacy by organizations such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.
While providing non-criminal information in a background check is still technically legal today, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) voluntarily adheres to the promise that they will no longer disclose non-criminal information in background checks. The change was prompted by new police reference check guidelines drafted by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police last June.
The OACP says that their new guidelines on how to proceed during a background check are an excellent and functional alternative to operate under while the legislation surrounding what can lawfully be disclosed in police background checks tries to find consistency across Ontario. The guidelines allow for police to use their discretion to decide, in some circumstances, whether certain mental health related information is relevant — for example, if someone has repeatedly attempted suicide. This would mean information relevant to the job would be disclosed, but nothing further.
It is widely agreed by multiple groups and organizations that official legislation unifying the approach to police record checks is necessary to securing civil liberties for all citizens of Ontario. Even today, thousands of people are listed in Canada’s criminal records without ever having committed a criminal offence. Many of the people in the criminal record database had no registered convictions, but were still listed and had notations for attempted suicide.
In the coming years in Ontario, instances of mental health or other non-criminal interactions with the police will not be so readily available to anyone who requests it. More of a focus is being made by Ontario police to protect citizens’ rights to privacy.