It was to be Gordon Sinclair’s last chance.
At 46, after decades of getting by on contracts in the animation industry and then working long hours as a chef, he decided to pursue a career that matched his abilities to his passion. He enrolled in George Brown College to become a nurse.
“I was excited,” says Sinclair, now 50. “I wanted to go to Africa and work with Doctors Without Borders. Those plans have all been ruined.”
In 2011, with thousands of dollars spend on tuition and two semesters on the Dean’s Honour List, Sinclair was forced out of the program when charges from 20 years before showed up on a mandatory police check.
The charges — he had been rounded up in a raid on the comic book store where he worked — were never proven and were dismissed by a judge. By any measure, Gordon Sinclair was and is innocent.
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians — perhaps millions — are vulnerable to seeing their ambitions crushed, reputations ruined and livelihoods shattered because of a lack of legislation across Canada to dictate what information police can or cannot release, a Star investigation has found.
The situation has become critical, as more and more employers, volunteer groups, licensing bodies, governments and universities are requiring police checks that frequently disclose so-called non-conviction records — everything from simple contacts with police and 911 mental health calls to charges that were dropped, withdrawn or led to not-guilty verdicts due to lack of evidence.
Detailed interviews with nearly a dozen Canadians with such records include an Ottawa man who lost a career with Air Canada — even though he was never charged or convicted of any crime — because police years earlier took note of him with a suspected drug dealer in the low income neighbourhood where he grew up.
A B.C. woman’s 911 calls during family arguments were noted on her police record and now prevent her from volunteer and professional work and trigger problems when crossing the U.S. border.
A Caledon man has abandoned his dream of being a firefighter after he was removed from a trainee position because his police check detailed a childhood friendship with a suspected drug dealer, even though he himself had no contact with police.
All three were unaware they had police records until they were required to provide background checks to prospective employers.
“This is an issue that should greatly concern all Ontarians, since it really could happen to anyone,” says Jacqueline Tasca, policy analyst with the John Howard Society of Ontario ’s Centre of Research, Policy and Program Development. “Most people don’t know what a police record includes, and how common police records actually are. Many people have police records that they do not even know about.”
The Toronto Police Service, for example, received nearly 110,000 requests last year from professional and volunteer organizations — a 92-per-cent increase over five years ago.
“The consequences of releasing non-conviction information can be devastating,” says Abby Deshman, a director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).
“It is hard enough to get a job, volunteer experience or higher education. Trying to do these things with a non-conviction entry on your record results in closed doors and lost opportunities.”
Both the CCLA and the John Howard Society of Ontario are releasing reports on the issue today that argue the presumption of innocence is being undermined by a patchwork of guidelines across police forces in Canada and a lack of legal framework governing what information is released.
Together, they call for tighter control over the release of non-conviction records and say the information should be withheld except in cases in which the disclosure would address a significant public safety threat.
As many as one in three Canadians have some form of non-conviction record sitting in police computers, the CCLA report says.
In Ontario, the criminal court system processes more than half-a-million charges annually. Last year, 43 per cent of adult cases resulted in stayed or withdrawn charges, the John Howard research found. All those individuals, despite not being found guilty of anything, have records in police computers.
More than half of employers surveyed by the John Howard Society in Hastings and Prince Edward counties require police background checks of prospective employees during hiring. And half of those employers had a police record check come back positive in the previous year.
The only explanation for the steady growth of background requests to the Toronto police is that “organizations that previously didn’t ask for (background checks) are asking,” says police spokesperson Mark Pugash.
The growth appears to be continuing unabated.
A parent committee of the Toronto District School Board recently floated a motion that if adopted would make police record checks mandatory for hundreds of volunteers accompanying their children and grandchildren on field trips.
Police policies for disclosing non-conviction records vary widely across Canada.
Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have guidelines that differ on how much information can be released while Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia have no clear policies, the CCLA study says.
In February, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police proposed new guidelines advising forces “against disclosure of non-conviction records” with a “narrow public safety exception” for cases where disclosure would protect vulnerable people.
It is unclear how broadly the guidelines will be adopted by forces across the province that already have widely varying practices.
The real solution, according to both the CCLA and the John Howard Society, is clear legislation that prohibits disclosure of non-conviction records. They also suggest placing decisions around the most revealing kind of background checks — those issued to people seeking to work with vulnerable Canadians — in the hands of trained and impartial professionals who would be governed by provincial legislation that includes clear privacy and human rights protections.
Gordon Sinclair’s experience illustrates how an individual’s life can be derailed by a “vulnerable records check.”