Canadian civilians, boxed in by militarized civilian police at the Toronto intersection of Queen and Spadina, on June 17, 2010. (Photo: Jonas Naimark, Creative Commons).

One of the bees in my bonnet has long been the misuse of the term civilian to describe people who are not sworn police officers. I wrote the post below almost a decade ago — as the startling appearance of the then-sitting prime minister in the text as if he were still a PM rather than a global nuisance will make clear. It was first published on Dec. 11, 2010. Still, in light of recent shocking events on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, it still seems as relevant now as it was 10 years ago. I haven’t changed a word, but for fixing three small typos. I am grateful to, where this was also published, for acting as a permanent archive for so much progressive Canadian opinion writing and news reporting, including some of mine. — David J. Climenhaga

+  +  +

George Orwell famously observed that, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

British author George Orwell as rendered by American Artist R.B. Kitaj, 1932-2007 (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.).

If you want to see this principle in action, just read the coverage of the G20 police riot in Toronto last June.

Here is just one passage from one of Rosie DiManno’s excellent series of Toronto Star columns about the disgraceful conduct of Toronto’s militarized city police and the continuing refusal of that city’s police chief* to do his sworn duty and uphold the law.

“The ghastly scenes of cops tackling peaceful demonstrators on the Legislature grounds on June 26 do not foster confidence,” Ms. DiManno wrote. “That melee — batons battering, feet stomping, civilians curled up on the ground in the fetal position — was obviously the crescendo note of a lurid police action opera. Yet the cacophony of the G20 fiasco continues to reverberate these past six months.”

Most of us, reading this passage, likely will not see anything wrong with it other than in the actions of the so-called police it describes. But that is because, as Orwell suggested would happen, our thoughts have been corrupted by the way our language is used daily.

I refer specifically to the phrase “civilians curled up on the ground in the fetal position.”

And who was beating these civilians, pray? Other civilians, that’s who!

Let us consider the important proper distinction that the media, police and many of the rest of us nowadays fail to make between the terms “civilian” and … what exactly? Well, in civil society — using that term in its technical sense — the distinction is between “civilian” and “military.”

Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, as imagined in 1875 by French artist by Adolphe Yvon, 1817-1893.

This would have been obvious to any minimally educated person only a generation or two ago.

We crossed the Rubicon on this troubling usage about two decades ago — an appropriate enough metaphor, as it happens, as it refers to the moment when Julius Caesar‘s army crossed the traditional border into the constitutionally protected environs of Rome where no one was supposed to be able to command a military force on pain of death.

The traditional view of Caesar’s action is that, when he got away with it, it spelled the end of the Roman Republic.

This happened in North America — first in the United States, of course — when civilian police departments began to think of themselves as militarized occupation forces, there not to enforce the law but to exert the will of the powerful. Soon after, many police began to make a distinction in their jargon between themselves and “civilians.”

This was quickly picked up by police reporters — that most toadying class of journalist — and now it has “officially” entered the language. At least, it is official enough to satisfy the editors of the Canadian Press, and worse, of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.* Thus, states the latter: “civilian … a person not in the armed forces or the police force. …” (Emphasis added.)

This is a corruption, and a corrupting corruption, since the simple fact is that municipal police are civilians, charged only with enforcing the law, subject themselves to the rule of law, and properly described as public servants.

If the police are not our servants, bound to the law as we all are, then there is no law. To paraphrase an old Irish song, if being Canadian means we’re guilty, then we’re guilty one and all!

Former prime minister Stephen Harper as observed by American politician-portraitist George W. Bush, born 1946 (George Bush Presidential Center, University Park, Texas).

This seems to be the position of the Canadian government. It has always been the position of the Alberta government, whence sprang Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his anti-democratic disciples. And now it is becoming the position of other governments in the newly Albertanized parts of Canada, such as metropolitan Toronto.

It is also clearly, as cited above, the position taken by our corrupted lexicographers.

Symbols can be corrupting too, of course, and it could be argued we started down this particular unhappy garden path long ago, when we began to dress our police officers in military uniforms. (This became a particularly Canadian fault at an unusually early point in our national history when we had to disguise a cavalry regiment, complete with campaign hats and yellow-striped jodhpurs, as a “mounted police force” to keep our envious neighbours both from grasping too much and from reacting with too much hostility. Arguably, however, this strategy worked in a geopolitical sense, and we are all the better for it.)

Moreover, since most Canadians (including an astonishingly large number of members of the armed forces) are almost perfectly innocent of the meaning of military symbolism, much of the corrupting power of military-style uniforms on civilian police officers was soon lost, at least until our police forces adopted the American practice of wearing combat fatigues complete with boots and tin helmets.

Clearly this latter practice should be stopped at once, especially for officers on routine patrol. Civilian police should wear uniforms that clearly identify them as the civilian public servants that they are — models might be found in the work-related attire worn by nurses, postal delivery personnel and police officers in other countries whose governments are more committed to democratic values than ours.

That said, the symbolism of the language we use is in many ways more powerful, if only because it is less obvious and thus more insidious.

As a consequence, the simplest place for all of us to start recalibrating our perception of our civilian police as something other than a military occupation force in the service of an alien power, is simply by refusing to participate in this corruption of our language.

In other words, let’s each of us stop this dangerous and anti-democratic practice of falsely distinguishing between “police” and “civilians” in speech and writing, and tell the media that we expect the same from them.

* Bill Blair, now minister of public safety in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

** While the Canadian Press Stylebook relied on the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, most English-language dictionaries now make the distinction the same way.

Join the Conversation


  1. Bill Blair the man that lead this gross battle against non violent protesters is now targeting legal gun owners. He will always do the easy fast move to score political points instead of going for the real root of the problem. The right and the left love his tactics. Both Harper and now Trudeau use him to violate our rights for their gain.

  2. Ah, yes, the disgusting G20 shambola. I was discussing this just last week with someone too young to remember. I clearly recall the photos of “rioters” dressed in black, wearing regulation police-issued boots, complete with Vibram® soles. Further research at the time showed that these particular boots were only sold to police forces and military at the time. That was research time well spent. So what the heck were men in black, wearing official police boots, doing, stirring up trouble in order to round up people who had done nothing wrong, and were following their legal right to protest peacefully. Police agitators, you say? Yes, I do.

    Remember the police sweep of Toronto streets, rounding up all and sundry into cages, with no access to legal counsel, and no charges, and none of the usual required reasons to apprehend them? That was quite a show of Toronto’s and Canada’s brute force and complete disrespect for the citoyens.

    If you’re wondering why this is extremely important a decade later, think long and hard about who has been advising Alberta premier Jason Kenney behind the curtain of late. And think about Bill 1, which makes peaceful protest a crime, if it takes place pretty much anywhere on public property. A police state gets some politicians pretty excited, in all the wrong ways. It would make the IDU proud.

    In other news, some American police forces have announced that they are suspending the use of the vascular neck restraint technique, sometimes involving death. The Minneapolis Police continue to be enthusiasts of this technique, even after George Floyd. Well, that’s jolly good of them. Canadian police forces remain mysteriously silent on their own chokehold usage.

  3. The barn door has been left open and swinging in the wind so long that the hinges are coming off and the horse is a vague memory. The military is now lumped in with “first responders”, and thus vice versa. Police officers are usually referred to as “members” of their organization when information about their conduct is spun for the public, not as “officers” whose principal duty is to serve the public. Calgary police have adopted black uniforms that give that old-fashioned “Meine Ehre heißt Treue” feel.
    The events of 2010 in Toronto have disappeared down the Memory Hole. There was a documentary made by Scott Noble that revealed a degree of criminality on the part of law enforcement at the G20 that far exceeded what mainstream media revealed. Noble’s film disappeared from the interwebs many years ago, and not a trace of it remains.

  4. Solving the puzzle successfully would result in finding that ‘golden mean’ of disciplinary power relationships/disciplined submission in highly technological, democratic human societies that is juxtaposed between legitimate protest/civil disobedience/counter power and the state that “has a rulership (Herrschaft) relationship of the people and over the people, which means legitimate but coercive power (that is legitimate in the eyes of the people). To ensure that the state endures, the people who are ruled need to submit to this dominating coercive authority. [The question is] why and under what circumstances will the people submit? And on which intrinsic internal legal justification and what external means does domination [Herrschaft] rely?”

  5. More relevant today then ever thank you for this, but what would it take to get back to what the police should be? We see more and more police forces, the Minneapolis police for example, being trained by the military and not the American one. A military that has plenty of experience as an occupying force. Look at the Tiananmen Square massacre which has now become a protest or incident or even just the June 4th incident. That is what an occupying police force becomes, troops on the street no matter what they are doing should make any freedom loving person uneasy.

    Government officials is another term that bugs me, they are public servants doing public service.

    1. Maybe look at it this way: All Government office holders are public servants in the generic sense, but not all public servants are office holders; the latter take instruction and get authorization from the former. For example, welfare case- workers must get authorization from their supervisors who hold that office in order to disperse public benefits to clients. Thus, first-responders, paramedics and police are among public servants who answer to their respective public emergency, health and law enforcement officials. Hope that helps with the “bugs”.

  6. Why would an otherwise artistically gifted former president put to canvas a portrait of our beloved former prime minister as if the latter were afflicted with the Mumps?

  7. I had a conversation with a member of CPS prior to the G20 abomination. He was an import from another Commonwealth police force that CPS brought in when they couldn’t get enough locals to sign up. This fellow was about to leave for duty at the G20 and he told me that the highlight of his law enforcement career occurred in the Old Country when he and his colleagues returned their riot gear to the QM after dealing with a demonstration. What made the event stand out in his mind was the destruction of the telescoping batons that had been issued. These guys had beaten the protestors with such vigor that they had deformed the batons, which would no longer retract. Whether the guy’s story was true or not, he went to Toronto and CPS earned the reputation as the most aggressive group involved in the police riots. When I asked what the the demonstrations in his home country had been about, he said “globalization or something”. He also displayed the astuteness of our Drug Warriors, alleging that the protesters were high on “crack and pot”, making them particularly dangerous.

  8. Well, I agree 100%. Somehow without knowing about this old article, I came to the exact same conclusion about the police labelling us as civilians. It is the one unresolvable difference between me and my pal a retired Mountie who is pretty progressive just based on logic alone. He thinks I just don’t and cannot understand why I should be a civilian and for some reason he is not. No, I do not understand. So this idea of us and them is as old as the hills with the RCMP, where the employees refer to each other as members and indeed members of some mythical cadre while the great unwashed are civilians. The Mounties are not military but consider themselves as not civilians. How does that work in any social logic frame? For me it does not.

    Yet on another point, my friend says “Any time you bring the profession of police work into disrepute, you do everyone a dis-service.” And then points out all the “police” bringing police work into disrepute. Ah, but he’s an old idealist of the straight and narrow persuasion with ethics to die for. Unlike these bullies who sign up these days for police service so as to beat people around if they don’t hop to it and obey arbitrary orders.

    It is is this attitude and resulting behaviour that fuels the ghoulishishness of our current police. And the New York City police, likely worst of all, are described here:

  9. “Cops”, the reality TV show about police, has been cancelled, just days ahead of its new season.

    Reruns of “Little Britain” will no longer be aired, either. Even “Gone With the Wind” is gone with the wind.

    Times are changing, in some places.

  10. I don’t want to deflect from the current debate over police violence and discriminatory tactics against young Black people, Indigenous people and other minorities. But, as an involved person in the labour movement, you are well aware of police taking sides in labour disputes. (Remember the 1999/2000 Calgary Herald strike?) Hell only knows how the current Alberta government will apply Bill 1 against workers and other protesting citizens here.
    I agree language and distinguishing between civilian and military are important, but don’t let’s lose our focus on the broader issues here.
    We hear much talk of “defunding” police departments. That has merit if it means redefining goals of policing in our society. Police often storm out of their detachments in their battle fatigues or bullet-proof vests and armed to the teeth to deal with some kids milling around the local 7-11. We can question whether they are best qualified to handle domestic violence, abuse against women and children, or other social conflict.
    Maybe a more obviously civilian, separate and more specifically trained arm of policing should be set up to try to deal with these kinds of issues.
    But, as we know, there are some very violent people ready to take extreme action against any authority. In those cases, I’m ready to support a well-armed police force, whether they call themselves military or not. So, we have to separate more clearly the different roles of police, and look at establishing different organizations to deal with those roles.
    In the end, though, I’m not optimistic this sort of discussion could happen in Alberta.

  11. The first sign of creeping Totalitarianism is the militarization of the police.

    In fascist Italy, Spain, and Germany, the common constable-on-patrol (COP) was turned into an agent of the governing party, enforcing the party’s ideological doctrine. And the police are now armed like militaries. They are, no matter how small the force, equipped with the latest and deadliest of arsenals. Police are now trained to break and kill civilians, not enforce laws that serve the common good.

    This is how it all begins.

  12. In fact, this kind of language has also crept into the profession I share with your employer’s membership: Nursing. There is talk of “the front lines”, working “in the trenches”, and referring to members of the public as “civilians”. I think part of it is the uniform, although many nurses — like myself — working outside the hospital sector don’t wear uniforms at work. I feel it’s unfortunate, and there are many in the profession pushing back against this trend, but the trend persists.

    1. Jerry: I don’t object to this usage by nurses because, as with journalists, it is intended humorously or ironically and based on a proper understanding by the user of what “civilian” means. This “proper understanding” argument stands even if the speaker doesn’t correctly understand the soldier/cop dichotomy, only that he or she is not a member of the usual category for which the term is used. DJC

  13. Pointing out that while chokeholds have fallen out of favor and are banned by many police forces, carotid control is just as lethal, if not more so, and is still allowed by many police forces, even the ones that do not allow chokeholds. It is deadly force, but by cutting off blood circulation to the brain, instead of strangulation. “Sleeper hold”, if death is sleep.

    We need to talk to our police about this, Canada.

  14. “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field…”

    Since it’s presumed not good for humans to be alone and helpless, the God of the Biblical creation story (Genesis chapter 2, verses 18, 19, 20) watched to see Adam complete this task of naming all the animals, “[But] for Adam there was not found a help meet for him.” It’s open to interpretation just exactly what is meant by “naming”, here, but this micro-narrative arc was definitely given to have meaning, just like God’s logos and Christ’s gospel—at very least that words are important. Some while later, after global radio mass-communication had flourished between the two World Wars, Orwell wrote his penultimate novel “1984” about the manipulation of words, introducing “newspeak”, “proles” and “Big Brother” to common usage as terms for totalitarian propaganda and social control.

    Today, with astronomically more ubiquitous mass social-media than in 1949’s “1984”, words, their meaning and effect, can only have even more importance—not intending to offend evangelical belief in supremacy of Biblical literalism, but merely reminding that because humankind is currently so-not-alone as to physically outweigh all other mammals on the planet, weaponizing words—“slogan” is Gaelic for “war-cry”—under the rubricating rubric of war to achieve peace, ignores at our peril more pressing problems implied by the logical extension of Gen.1:28: “…Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish [fill] the earth, and subdue it…”, the first words spoken to the first two humans, according to the Genesis story.

    Evangelicals could do better by reinterpreting this ‘First Commandment’: now that humankind has very nearly subdued the earth and every living thing on it, irrespective whether its the weather or a climate of obeisance, we have reached the climax where deploying slogans and ‘fake news’ to storm against each other distracts us from composing what to do after the commandment has been competed—something we could only do together, cooperatively.

    But interpreting words has always been a problem, which is perhaps why it was narratized in Genesis: God commands Adam and Eve preemptively not to discover the difference between right and wrong—presumably so’s not to waste time in resultant debate which might make their tongues too tired to spend the night together (on the “evening and morning [of] the sixth day”) getting busy on the multiplying part of the commandment. Rote ignorance was God’s intent when Adam was put in a deep trance, the wound where his rib was removed healed over to hide it from him as if to limit his “Bone of my bones” ejaculation to the desired business at hand once presented with Eve—the very first human words quoted in the Bible, (Adam’s only other quotation blames Eve for giving him the bite of moral consciousness—or, perhaps, blames God for having made her). Lo, even unto this very day the episode of the serpent, a theme that long predates the Genesis story, has been interpreted and reinterpreted contentiously so that the only character of the four cast in the seminal episode of the apple’s gravity and humanity’s Fall who didn’t resort to deception has subsequently been accused of impregnating Eve (the only intercourse given in the literal text is dialogue, in fact the first conversation quoted in the Bible) or of being the Devil incarnate —and therefore ironically emblemized on the “Don’t Tread on Me” or Gadsen Flag often waved at political rallies by American Evangelicals themselves. One wonders why, if words mean so much, serpents the world over haven’t filed a class-action lawsuit for defamation and damages by now, the allegations implied literally by the story of The Fall evidentially having resulted in far more strikes upon snakes’ heads than any of them have ever struck at human heels. We come away with the knowledge that words have lasting effect, regardless truth or fairness, and that they can be used for good or bad, either with or without acknowledgement.

    Having failed to keep the fat out of the fire, God regrets the wickedness of humankind as much as the gods of Gilgamesh or Atrahasis did the racket of human chatter long before that, so much so the Creation story had to be revised and the power to use words to curse, as God did the three defendants of Eden, was transferred to Noah whose naked euphoria from acquiring the knowledge of good and evil fruits of the vine was grounds to condemn one of his own line who, now after the Flood, all present day humans are alleged to have descended —which, again, the hapless God came to regret so much the tongues of the dangerously cooperative city of Babel had to be made mutually unintelligible, an allegory of factionalism that applies to all times thence: we need neither understand nor know exactly what the words of “The Other” mean to perceive that they are fighting words—nor that an ostensibly rational meaning of, say, “civilian” can have a desired, if subliminal, effect on how we think.

    Slogans are the epitome of this linguistic and, I suspect, narratological feature. Not so subliminal as “civilian” is supposed to subtly foster a certain relationship between separate factions (the other being “police” Or “the authorities”), but often striving to become normalized as when the term “veto” is purposely disseminated to counter “consent” with respect Aboriginal land claims and rights, both slogans striving to become memes for their own, particular purposes, both effectively supplying ammo to be fired back by either side at each other, but neither being factually true. As both become kinds of canon, truth becomes a kind of fodder to be simply eaten and digested into fertilizing manure of, in this “Sixth Extinction” era, imprudent, rote, rivalrous rhetoric.

    “No blame” is the perfect Taoistic compliment between two aspects of anything, and slogan is the opposite: purposely non-resolving contention. In this globalized mass-social-media age, slogans are dominating political and cultural discourse “very strongly like nobody’s ever seen before” as a certain blue-and-pink gimleted Orange One avails with almost no context in reality —except for TV, naturally; excise the slogans and all that’s left is the twenty-one seconds of ums and ahs speechlessly purring out of Justin Trudeau’s ears as he carefully avoids provoking the presidunce any more than he can possibly get away with. But it’s getting harder to do: Antifa, Black-Lives-Matter, White-Privilege, Veto, Consent, Idle-No-More, Decolonization, Missing-And-Murdered-Aboriginal-Women-And Girls, Alt-Right, Defund, and many, many more, regardless their merit or lack thereof, are becoming swords, not ploughshares. Which of course is exactly what some factions want.

    Slogans need to be used so carefully nowadays so’s not to become counterproductive that prudent political discourse should probably not use them at all. Yet we hear reactionary resort to counter-sloganeering spread connivingly from far-right politicians to proudly unthinking true believers. The seemingly overweening exceptions taken to slogans which have become toxically normalized are therefore worthwhile.

    Unfortunately in times of stress like these, the task is as more difficult as it is more necessary so that “Earth First” doesn’t provoke “We’ll despoil the other planets later.”

    Okay! Everybody repeat after me: Down With Slogans! Down With Slogans!! Down With Slogans!!!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.