Stay Safe in Canada
Security in Canada is generally not a problem and a little common sense goes a long way. Even in big cities, violent crime is not a serious problem and very few people are armed. Violent crime should not worry the average traveller as it is usually confined to certain neighbourhoods and is rarely committed indiscriminately. Overall crime rates in Canadian cities remain low compared to most urban areas of similar size in the United States and much of the rest of the world (although violent crime rates are higher than in most Western European cities). Overall, crime is higher in the western provinces than in eastern Canada, but is even higher in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Recently, there have been several high-profile shootings in public/tourist areas – for example, the June 2012 shootings at Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and Edmonton’s HUB Mall; the fact that these incidents receive such extensive media coverage is related to the fact that they are considered very rare events.
Police officers in Canada are generally hardworking, honest and trustworthy people. If you have any problems while you’re here, even if it’s just getting lost, it’s a good idea to talk to a police officer.
There are three main types of police forces in Canada: federal, provincial and municipal. The federal police force is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP or “Mounties”), which has a large presence in all regions of the country except Quebec, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador, which have their own provincial police forces. These are the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. All other provinces and territories (and some rural parts of Newfoundland and Labrador) rely on the RCMP for their provincial duties.
As federal police, RCMP officers usually wear regular police uniforms and drive police cars while on duty. However, a minority of RCMP officers may appear in their iconic red uniforms in tourist areas and at official events such as parades. Some RCMP officers participate in elaborate ceremonies, such as the Musical Ride horse show. When in full uniform, their main function is to promote the image of Canada and Canadian Mounties. RCMP officers in full uniform are not usually responsible for investigating crimes or enforcing the law, although they are still police officers and can make arrests. In some tourist areas, such as Ottawa, both types of RCMP officers are common. This dual role and appearance of the RCMP, both as federal police and as a tourist attraction, can cause confusion among tourists about the function of the RCMP. Remember that all RCMP officers are police officers and have a duty to enforce the law.
Cities and regions often have their own police forces. Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are three of the largest. Some cities also have special transit police with full police powers. Some quasi-governmental bodies, such as universities and electric utilities, also employ special private police forces. Canadian National Railways and Canadian Pacific Railway each have their own police forces. Some First Nations reserves also have their own police forces. Canadian Armed Forces military police are located on military bases and other government defence-related facilities.
All three types of police forces can enforce any type of law, whether federal, provincial or municipal. Their jurisdictions overlap, with the RCMP able to make arrests anywhere in Canada and the OPP and municipal police officers able to make arrests anywhere in their own provinces. The arrest powers of federal, provincial and municipal police in Canada apply to both on-duty and off-duty officers.
You will find more police jurisdictions in the Ottawa-Gatineau National Capital Region than in any other part of Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (in uniform and street clothes), the Ontario Provincial Police, the Ottawa Police, the Sûreté du Québec, the Gatineau Police, the Military Police and OC Transpo Special Constables all operate in the region, each with a different style of uniform and police car.
Do not under any circumstances attempt to bribe a police officer as this is a criminal offence and they will enforce the laws against it.
If you are unlucky enough to have your wallet or purse stolen, the local police will do everything they can to help you. Often important identity documents are recovered after such thefts. Visitors to major cities should be aware that parked cars are sometimes the target of opportunistic thefts, so avoid leaving your belongings in plain sight. Due to the high incidence of these crimes, motorists in Montreal and some other jurisdictions can be fined for leaving their car doors unlocked or valuables in plain sight. Try to memorise your number plate number and make sure your plates are still attached before you drive anywhere, as some thieves steal plates to avoid arrest. Car theft in Montreal, including theft from motor homes and caravans, can occur in gated and openly secured car parks and courtyards. Bicycle theft can be a common nuisance in urban areas.
Canada is very susceptible to winter storms (including ice storms and blizzards) between November and February. Eastern Canada is where these storms are most common, but smaller storms can also occur west of northwestern Ontario, where wind-driven snow is the main hazard. Reduce your speed, watch out for other drivers and be alert. It’s a good idea to carry an emergency kit in case you have no choice but to spend the night stuck in the snow on the highway (yes, this sometimes happens, especially in remote areas). If you are unfamiliar with winter driving and decide to visit Canada during the winter months, consider using another mode of transport to explore the country. Note that the vast majority of winter weather naturally occurs during the winter months, but some areas of Canada, such as the Prairie Provinces, the North and the mountain regions, can experience severe, albeit brief, winter conditions at any time of the year.
If you are walking, it is best to layer up as much as possible, with thick socks, thermal underwear and gloves. Winter storms can bring extreme winds and freezing temperatures, and frostbite can occur within minutes.
Firearms and weapons
Unlike the United States, there is no constitutional right to possess firearms in Canada. The possession, purchase and use of any firearm requires appropriate licences for both the firearm and the user and is subject to federal laws. Firearms are classified (primarily by barrel length) into three categories: unrestricted (requiring minimal training and licensing), restricted (requiring more licensing and training) and prohibited (not legally available). Most rifles and shotguns are not restricted because they are often used for hunting, on farms or for protection in remote areas. Handguns or pistols are restricted weapons, but can be legally purchased and used with the appropriate permits. Generally, the only people who carry handguns are federal, provincial and municipal police officers, border guards, wildlife protection officers in most provinces, sheriff’s officers in some provinces, private security guards carrying cash, people working in remote “wilderness” areas who are properly licensed, and pistol sport shooters. Non-prohibited firearms, such as most types of rifles and shotguns, may be imported for sporting purposes such as target shooting and hunting, and non-prohibited handguns for target shooting may also be imported with the appropriate documentation. All firearms must be declared to Customs upon entry into Canada, even if they are not restricted, and failure to do so is a criminal offence punishable by fines and imprisonment. Prohibited firearms will be confiscated at customs and destroyed. Travellers should contact the Canada Firearms Centre and the Canada Border Services Agency before bringing in any type of firearm prior to arrival.
Be aware that it is unusual for civilians to openly carry weapons in urban areas. Although it is not illegal, openly carrying a weapon is likely to be viewed with suspicion by the police and civilians.
Locking knives, butterfly knives, spring-loaded knives and all other knives that open automatically are classified as prohibited and are illegal in Canada, as are nunchucks, tasers and other stun weapons, most knife-hiding devices such as belt buckles and knife combs, and clothing or jewellery that can be used as a weapon. Stimulant gas and pepper spray are also illegal unless sold specifically for use against animals.
Illegal drug use
The use of marijuana is illegal in Canada (with the exception of medical marijuana). However, importing marijuana into Canada is strictly prohibited, even if you have a prescription.
Due to its popularity, easy accessibility and medical licenses, people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana are rarely arrested. However, possession of large amounts of marijuana or other controlled substances can lead to serious legal action, regardless of the amount.
Driving under the influence of drugs (including marijuana and even legal “sleeping pills”) is a violation of the Penal Code and is treated the same as driving under the influence of alcohol, with severe penalties. Do not attempt to drive under the influence of alcohol; visitors can expect to be deported after serving a prison sentence or paying very heavy fines.
Be aware that khat is illegal in Canada, unlike many other countries, and you will be arrested and deported if you try to pack it and get caught by customs.
It goes without saying that under no circumstances should you attempt to bring any amount of anything remotely resembling a controlled substance into Canada. This includes marijuana. The penalties in Canada for smuggling drugs can be very severe, with prison sentences ranging from 20 years to life for trafficking.
Driving under the influence of alcohol
Canadians take drinking and driving very seriously and in most circles it is a social taboo to drink and drive. Driving under the influence of alcohol is also a criminal offence under the Criminal Code of Canada and can result in jail time, especially for repeat offenders. If you exceed the legal blood alcohol limit on a roadside test, you will be arrested and spend at least a few hours in jail. A drunk driving conviction almost certainly means the end of your trip to Canada, a criminal record and a ban from re-entering Canada for at least 5 years. 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.08%) is the legal limit for a criminal conviction. Many jurisdictions provide for fines, licence suspension and vehicle impoundment at 40 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.04%), or if the officer has reason to believe you are too drunk to drive. Note this difference: while a 0.03% BAC during a police stop (“check-stop” or “ride-stop” to catch drunk drivers) does not lead to an arrest, the same BAC after being stopped for erratic driving or after being involved in an accident can lead to a drunk driving charge.
People who cross the land border between Canada and the United States while driving under the influence of alcohol are arrested by border officials.
Refusing to take a breathalyser test is also an offence under the Criminal Code and carries the same penalties as if you had been involved in an accident. If you are asked by a police officer to give a breath sample, it is best to take your chances with the device.
Hate speech and discrimination
Canada is a very multicultural society and the vast majority of Canadians are open-minded and accepting. As a result, you are very unlikely to encounter ridicule based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation in major cities. Hate speech – that is, communications that may incite violence against an identifiable group – is illegal in Canada and can lead to prosecution, imprisonment and deportation. Similarly, Canadian law prohibits all forms of discrimination in education and employment.
Stay Healthy in Canada
You are unlikely to encounter health problems here that you would not find in any other western industrialised country (despite claims about long waiting lists and substandard care, which often vary from hospital to hospital and are usually exaggerated). The health system is generally very efficient and widely accessible.
In the last two summers, some cases of West Nile virus, a sometimes fatal mosquito-borne infection, have occurred in some Canadian provinces (Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta). In addition, various diseases such as whooping cough are common in rural and urban Canada. Visitors should note that while Canada has a universal health care system for residents, health care is not free for visitors. Therefore, it is important to ensure that you are covered by your insurance when travelling in Canada.
Note that most Canadian provinces have banned indoor smoking in public places and near entrances. Some bans apply to places like bus shelters and outdoor patios.
Canada has fairly high standards for cleanliness in restaurants and grocery shops. If you have a problem with the food you bought, talk to the manager to report it. It is unlikely that you will get sick from contaminated food.
Health care in Canada is generally comparable to other Western nations. Almost all Canadian citizens and permanent residents receive health insurance from their provincial government, and reciprocal agreements between provinces provide Canada-wide coverage. Eligibility for health insurance coverage for people on student or work visas varies by province, but no province provides coverage for visitors. Hospitals are usually owned by government agencies or non-profit organisations, while doctors’ offices and small clinics are for-profit entities that bill directly to the provincial health system.
According to the WinnipegFreePress, medical care in Canada offers savings of 30 to 60 per cent compared to the United States. Medical tourism companies help visitors receive medical care such as cosmetic surgery and joint replacements in major cities like Vancouver and Montreal. After treatments, patients can enjoy a holiday and relax in a cottage in the Canadian Rockies, explore the colourful city of Montreal or engage in other activities.
Although less expensive than prices in the United States, healthcare in Canada can be very expensive for visitors. A small visit to the emergency room can easily cost $1000, especially if an ambulance is needed. Visitors to Canada should therefore have overseas health insurance that is valid for the duration of their stay.
In remote areas, especially in communities without road access, such as Churchill, patients with serious medical problems or trauma may be evacuated by air ambulance to a larger centre. The cost of the air ambulance flight alone can be as high as US$10,000, and even people with provincial health insurance may not be covered if they are outside their home province. Anyone, including Canadian residents, travelling to remote or rural areas should ensure that they have adequate insurance cover for such an incident.
Birth tourism is also reported in Canada and the US as a way for prospective parents to circumvent the “one-child policy” in mainland China.
Drinking water in the wilderness
When travelling in the hinterland, it is advisable to take a water purification system with you, as giardia can be present in open water sources such as lakes or rivers; this can cause gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhoea or vomiting. This can be avoided by boiling the drinking water or using filter systems or tablets to disinfect the water before drinking.