Rachel Mendleson and Steve Buist | Hillman Foundation

2023 Canadian Hillman Prize Winner

Rachel Mendleson and Steve Buist
The Toronto Star, The Hamilton Spectator
Headshots of Rachel Mendleson and Steve Buist

Rachel Mendleson, Toronto Star
Steve Buist, Hamilton Spectator

Toronto Star designers and editors: Nathan Pilla, Cameron Tulk, Tania Pereira, Kelsey Wilson, Jesse McLean and David Bruser, and data analyst Andrew Bailey

It’s been over forty years since The Charter of Rights and Freedoms set out Canadians’ legal rights, including regarding the police. Based on the presumption of innocence, individuals are entitled to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, arbitrary arrest and detention, and have the right to consult a lawyer. These rights are essential to our democracy.  But how well are they truly protected? Mendleson and Buist decided to find out. They set off to determine how often police violate our Charter rights, and what’s being done about it.

It was a painstaking process: the journalists scoured thousands of criminal cases in online databases maintained by the Canadian Legal Information Institute and LexisNexis to isolate those where judges determined that police officers’ Charter breaches were serious enough to threaten public confidence in the justice system. From unjustified vehicle stops, violent arrests, illegal strip searches to warrantless searches of people’s homes, the reporters uncovered an astonishing 600 rulings in the past decade where judges excluded crucial evidence from trial, dropped charges, or threw out cases altogether due to Charter breaches.

Many guilty people have walked free, while their victims’ hopes for justice were thwarted. Other, innocent suspects had their rights trampled and their lives upended, with little chance for recourse. Human rights lawyers add that systemic racism and racial profiling result in Black and Indigenous people being disproportionately targeted by these police abuses, further undermining trust in the justice system.

Yet police accountability is almost entirely lacking. In most provinces and territories, there are no formal systems in place to ensure that police forces — or the officers themselves — are notified of these court rulings. Within nine police services across Canada, judges noted that officers continued to flout the law despite prior rulings criticizing them for similar conduct. Even in egregious cases, only a handful of officers faced serious professional consequences for Charter rights violations.

As a result of “Unchartered,” several police forces are now making efforts to improve transparency and accountability. Waterloo Regional Police disciplined one officer after the reporters notified the police chief of a ruling that was previously unknown to the force. Toronto police acknowledged that the service was unaware of more than 90 cases the journalists had uncovered, and the force launched an internal investigation to review the conduct of the officers involved. Following questions about rights breaches by officers within the Saskatchewan RCMP, the police service solidified a process for prosecutors to inform its criminal operations division in all cases where Charter violations are a factor in a court decision.

“Unchartered” is an unprecedented investigation into police misconduct and abuse that, until now, has operated largely out of the public eye. Left unchecked, it will continue to undermine the rule of law and Canadians’ faith in their justice system.

Rachel Mendleson is an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star with a special interest in data-based reporting, justice issues and public policy. Her investigation into unreliable drug and alcohol testing at the Hospital for Sick Children’s Motherisk laboratory led to the lab being shut down and prompted reviews of affected child protection cases in several provinces. Rachel has previously worked for the Huffington Post, Maclean’s and Canadian Business.

Steve Buist is a recently retired investigative reporter and feature writer at the Hamilton Spectator and Toronto Star. He was responsible for producing large investigative projects, such as the highly-acclaimed Code Red project, which was named the inaugural winner of the Canadian Hillman Prize in 2011. Buist has won four National Newspaper Awards, the country’s top prize for newspaper journalists, and been nominated eight other times for National Newspaper Awards. He’s also been named the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Investigative Journalist of the Year three times and been named Ontario’s Journalist of the Year five times. In 2014, Buist was the winner of one of the world’s most prestigious cancer journalism awards as he earned the Best Cancer Reporter Award from the European School of Oncology. This past June, he was awarded an honourary doctorate from McMaster University for his work in the community. 

Jesse McLean (editor); Andy Bailey (data analysis); Nathan Pilla (design and web development); Kelsey Wilson (video editing); Tania Pereira (digital producer); Cameron Tulk (graphics editor)