Q: I was walking across some train tracks, taking a short cut to work. A man who identified himself as “CN Police” stopped me, gave me a lecture and a warning, and said next time he caught me I’d be fined. What sort of powers do these people have?
A: Good question. Peace officers have wide powers of arrest and detention in Canada, but generally are employed by a level of government: federal (RCMP); provincial (Ontario or Quebec Provincial Police); or municipal (city police services). When someone employed by a corporation purports to be a police officer, it raises the question of their authority.
The Canadian National Railway Police Service has a long history within Canada. The current version of the CN Police was started in 1923. This followed the creation of CNR, which was a merger of several large and small existing railroads including the Canadian Northern line, the Grand Trunk Pacific and Grand Trunk Western Railways, the Intercontinental and the National Transcontinental.
However, there has been a form of CN Police going back to the mid-1800s. Numerous railroad lines wanted their own security service to protect against theft, vandalism, trespassing and robberies. Purely private groups had real limitations on their powers, so these railway companies began asking the government of Canada for assistance.
As a result, when the federal government passed the Railway Act of Canada, it included special provisions for the railways to establish and maintain their own police forces.
One must remember this was in 1860, before Confederation and while Canada was still primarily an ungoverned land of territories. What is now Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were largely regarded as the wild West. Over the next two decades, railway police were seen as necessary to preserve order and safeguard the rail lines, which were tenuous links holding this new country together.
The 1860 law gave the railroad police officers powers of investigation and arrest that were similar to those of other peace officers.
The CN Police now get authority from the Canada Transportation Act, which is federal legislation. Section 158 of that act gives the railway companies the authority to appoint railway constables. Their powers of arrest are the same as other officers throughout this country. A lawful order or direction from a member of the CN Police has the same effect as that from the RCMP or a local police officer.
The modern CN police officers continue to enjoy similar powers, but the focus of their duties has changed with the times. Train robberies are a thing of the past, but rail safety is one of their paramount considerations.
In 1998 there was a change in how this police service operated, with a new emphasis on safety and public awareness. The CN Police investigate vandalism to railroad property, which can include anything from tampering with tracks or switches to spray-painting graffiti on boxcars. They prevent trespass onto railroad property, which is private. They also investigate accidents and do their best to ensure freight reaches its destination intact.
If you are found on CN property or tracks, they can definitely ask for your ID. If they see you crossing over CN property but stop you after you’re on other private or public property, they can still ask you for ID because (arguably) they have reasonable and probable grounds to believe you’ve committed an offence. Otherwise, they don’t have that right.
Rick Danyliuk is a practising lawyer in Saskatoon with McDougall Gauley LLP.
He also has experience in teaching and writing about legal issues. His columns are intended as general advice only. Individuals are encouraged to seek other opinions and/or personal counsel when dealing with legal matters.