Canada’s four pillars of public safety

Canada is considered one of the safest countries in the world; one reason is the Canadian government’s vigilance in ensuring its citizens are protected and secure, and life remains as peaceful and orderly as possible. Even a safe society must contend with the possibility of natural disasters or overseas threats. At the beginning of this century, Canada divided all potential public safety issues into four areas—known as pillars—and brought them all under Public Safety Canada’s (PSC’s) remit .

About PSC

Officially known as the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness (PSEPC), PSC is responsible for countering and managing all internal or external threats to the nation’s safety and wellbeing, whether from natural causes or human action. PSC was created in 2003 as an umbrella organization coordinating the nation’s existing security agencies and enabling local, provincial, and national services to work together and share information more smoothly.

PSC oversees agencies including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada Border Services Agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Correctional Service of Canada, and Parole Board of Canada, which together cover policing, border control, immigration and customs, prison management, criminal justice, and national intelligence.

PSC also works with three review bodies—the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, the RCMP External Review Committee, and the Office of the Correctional Investigator—to ensure complaints are dealt with fairly and transparently and all agencies are held to the highest level of accountability.

The four pillars

The Four Pillars of Public Safety PSC manages represent the scope of its responsibilities, and each includes related local and national initiatives.

Anyone interested in working in public safety in Canada can choose from four public safety graduate courses at Wilfrid Laurier University, as well as an online Master’s of Public Safety. It is the first and only education program of its kind in Canada, and the only program that aligns with the four pillars of public safety and PSC’s values and initiatives. The Master’s of Public Safety Laurier provides can be completed online in as little as 30 months.

The first pillar: National security

The first pillar addresses internal and external threats to the nation, mainly counter-terrorism and military preparedness. PSC works closely with the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, advising and helping to develop policies while providing national leadership on security issues.

Alongside the Canadian armed forces, those working in the interests of national security include intelligence officers, analysts, and local emergency services. Fire, ambulance, and police departments all have a role to play in countering national security threats. PSC creates regular exercises and drills that local and regional departments across the country carry out to ensure they are ready for any eventuality.

National security can be further broken down into counter-terrorism, counter proliferation, critical infrastructure, cyber security, and transportation security. Connecting with Canadian communities is also an essential part of the department’s work, as are enhancing bias sensitivity, diversity, and identity. By working alongside diverse Canadian communities, PSC can hear their concerns, promote a sense of involvement and belonging, facilitate a two-way flow of information, and secure those communities’ cooperation and support.

Counter-terrorism programs such as the Federal Terrorism Response Plan and the Canada Center for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence are part of a national strategy to protect Canada from both domestic and international terrorist incidents such as the 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec. Counter proliferation is concerned with weapons of mass destruction. PSC feels the nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological weapons various global powers hold pose a threat to the entire planet, including Canada. PSC is therefore committed to reducing their proliferation wherever possible and restricting the technical knowledge and resources required to create them, preventing them falling into the wrong hands.

Critical infrastructure includes the national energy grid, roads, railways, bridges, and dams, any of which could be the target of a terrorist attack, with devastating results. PSC works with stakeholders to reduce vulnerabilities and ensure plans are in place to counter any emergency and ensure service continuity. Cyber security ensures the same safeguards are in place for the nation’s digital infrastructure. Transportation security ensures the safety of Canadians on the move, both at home and abroad.

The second pillar: Border strategies

Canada has the world’s longest undefended border and is adjacent to one of the most powerful nations in the world. Typically, Canada’s border authorities must be prepared for over 260,000 land and air entries daily. During the COVID pandemic, border control was responsible for enforcing strict quarantine rules to control the spread of the virus. It is also responsible for managing the flow of goods and people  during any future emergencies.

Secure, efficient border management is essential not only for Canada’s safety but to protect the nation’s economy. A careful balance needs to be struck between facilitating and encouraging competitive trade via the free movement of goods and services across borders and protecting national interests. PSC works with federal departments and law enforcement agencies to counter cross-border crime, while providing federal leadership and coordination on issues such as cross-border law enforcement, customs, and immigration.

In addition to managing Canada’s own borders, PSC coordinates with border authorities in other countries. It works alongside law enforcement and governments to set immigration policy and ensure it is fairly and effectively maintained using methods such as biometric identification. Canada’s main border is with the US; the PSC therefore works most closely with them.

PSC maintains an ongoing dialog with its US counterparts on strategic and operational border issues. The Beyond The Border Action Plan consists of a shared vision of strengthening cooperation and pursuing shared goals to enhance security while accelerating the legitimate flow of people, goods, and services that benefit both nations.

Border strategies comprise four main categories: immigration enforcement, border law enforcement, customs enforcement, and preclearance. Preclearance helps identify security threats before they cross the Canadian border, while streamlining the flow of legitimate trade and travel. PSC provides border law enforcement advice, leadership, and horizontal coordination to frontline agencies and federal departments, while developing, modeling, and implementing effective crime prevention practices.

The Canada-United States Cross-Border Crime Forum is a joint ministerial forum hosted by PSC, Justice Canada, and the US Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, bringing together senior law enforcement and justice officials from various Canadian and US organizations to coordinate border law enforcement and security policy.

The third pillar: Countering crime

Policing, criminal justice, and corrections all fall under PSC’s authority and make up the third public safety pillar. Along with overseeing crime prevention, the department is particularly concerned with addressing inequalities and discrimination in the criminal justice system. Some demographic groups are more likely to be arrested, charged, and incarcerated than others, and PSC is determined to make sure everyone is treated fairly by the law, taking into account community-specific issues.

The approaches PSC uses include recognizing First Nations policing as essential and ensuring indigenous communities can maintain their own police services wherever possible. Parole reform and increased civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies are other measures being put in place.

Accountability and transparency are key values in PSC’s vision of an integrated police and criminal justice system. Cyber security is also being stepped up, and PSC remains tough on issues such as gun control, contraband, and violent crime.

PSC works with police and law enforcement on a federal, territory, and provincial level to tackle crime and create, implement, and deliver community-specific programs addressing the social and environmental causes of criminal behavior. PSC provides tools and resources including education, information, community support, research, and advice on social and law enforcement policy.

PSC also oversees the rehabilitation of convicted criminals by developing prison management and parole laws and policies. PSC provides referrals, information, and research to aid in decision-making. While alternatives to incarceration are explored where appropriate, public safety and victim support remain paramount.

Effective coordination and leadership in the fight against organized crime is another PSC goal. Integrated policies and strategies help federal, provincial, and territory agencies to work together, while PSC coordinates with international counterparts to combat criminal activity worldwide. Money laundering, drugs, and contraband tobacco are all areas that need international cooperation, as are the growing issues of human trafficking and people smuggling.

PSC follows United Nations protocols and the Protecting Canada Immigration System Act when investigating and preventing the illegal and harmful transportation of human beings across its borders. Gun control and the prevention of gang violence and gun crime have also become more pressing problems in Canada in recent years. The Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee ensures the country’s laws keep pace with the real dangers and threats posed by illegal gun use and ownership.

The fourth pillar: Emergency management

PSC defines emergency management as four consecutive steps or stages: prevention and mitigation, emergency preparedness, response to emergency events, and recovery from disasters. Each stage is triggered when events outpace the previous stage. The prevention and mitigation stage is about risk assessment:

  • What are the possible natural, man-made, or technological emergencies that could occur?
  • How likely are they to happen? How can that likelihood be reduced?
  • If they do happen, what would the consequences be? How can the damage be minimized?

Good planning during this stage also helps to reduce the financial cost of later stages. Emergency preparedness is about ensuring the relevant services and agencies in all areas that may be affected are fully prepared and drilled, with plans in place for every eventuality. The third and fourth stages cover coordinating an effective disaster response and providing federal support and aid in the aftermath.

The initial emergency response will always come from local agencies. Even in the case of a major disaster, they must manage the situation while national or international responses are in progress. First responders include local police, fire departments, and medical services, with the province or territory able to request federal assistance if the emergency exceeds their capabilities. PSC developed the National Emergency Response System (NERS) to coordinate emergency response at federal, territory, and provincial levels.

PSC manages the Government Operations Center, which brings representatives from national and local government together with non-government organizations, the private sector, and international partners to closely monitor events and provide an emergency response if needed. Available tools include the Canadian Disaster Database, which houses information on over 1,000 natural, technological, and conflict-based emergency events in which Canadians have been involved since 1900.

The Four Pillars of Public Safety that provide a comprehensive framework for safety, security, and law enforcement in Canada could equally be applied to any other nation. They allow threats, issues, and concerns to be immediately identified and addressed, and guard against oversight or neglect. By upholding these four pillars, PSC contributes to Canada’s reputation as a safe and prosperous place to live.

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