Self defence laws in Canada and tips to stay safe 

By: Callum Denault

Published on: January 29th, 2024

It is a harsh reality that any place can have dangerous people who may wish to cause harm to others, even in a country like Canada that receives several newcomers every year seeking a safer, more comfortable life. If you want to learn how to protect yourself from harm, while also staying on the right side of the Canadian law, here are some tips to help you practice safe and legal self-defence.  

Please keep in mind, The Newcomer is not an official legal source, and if you are personally in legal trouble, it is best to contact a lawyer. Think of this article more as some informal advice on how to avoid getting into legal trouble in the first place. 

“Reasonable force”: When the law says it is okay for you to hurt someone in self defence 

Unfortunately, Canadian laws can be harsh on people who have killed to protect their own lives, as Global News reported in February 2023. A man was charged with second degree murder for using a registered firearm that he owned to kill one of two men who broke into his house with an unlicensed gun, while the unrelated death of another person who was fatally stabbed by a resident of the home they invaded was ruled a homicide.  

Under Canadian law, it is Section 35 of the Criminal Code that handles self defence laws. Although, if you shoot someone in self defence, the police will charge you with a crime that you will have to go to court for. You can defend yourself legally if you can prove any violence you committed was reasonable force. 

How much force is considered ‘reasonable’ depends greatly on the situation. For instance, if the alleged attacker had a weapon, what type of weapon it was, how exactly they were threatening someone, and if the person defending themselves had other options to defuse the situation with less violence.  

Using violence for self defence is only justifiable in Canadian law if you had a good reason to believe someone was about to seriously harm or kill you, and whatever violence you used against them was in order to prevent them from harming you. 

You cannot severely hurt or attack someone just because they are trespassing on your property, since that would not be considered a reasonable use of force. This is different from the laws in some US states, such as Texas where homeowners are allowed to use more severe force against trespassers. 

This 2012 CBC interview with criminal lawyer Howard Cohen goes over different common self defence situations and what type of force would be considered reasonable. Cohen said the law generally gives benefit of the doubt to someone who attacked a home invader, and is more likely to assume any violence was self defence. However, this does not mean you can seriously hurt someone who is running away, even if they did break into your home and threaten you. 

Similarly, if someone were to try and rob a store you own, you could only justify killing them if that action was clearly to save your own life. If someone is just robbing the store, you can do a citizen’s arrest on them, which this article will go over in detail below. 

If you are chasing someone who robbed you, you are allowed to try and get your stuff back, but not by severely hurting the thief. Your actions to catch a thief will be held under similar judgement as a police officer in the same situation. Similarly, if someone is trespassing on your property, but not posing a physical threat, your actions are limited to calling the police and possibly holding the trespasser there until help arrives. 

You are also not allowed to do too much to someone you merely think poses a threat to your or family members, unless that person takes action or uses some kind of physical force.  

Making a citizen’s arrest 

A citizen’s arrest is basically when someone arrests a person and holds them until official law enforcement can show up. The Canadian government has a guide on making a citizen’s arrest

The government suggests you only try to make a citizen’s arrest if no peace officers (such as any police) are around to help, if you can quickly turn the person over to police after arresting them, if you have reason to believe they are a criminal, and if it is physically safe for you to try arresting them. Consider if the person you want to arrest has a weapon, and if they are alone or not. 

You must plainly tell the suspect you are doing a citizen’s arrest, and will be holding them until police arrive. You also need to call the police and be ready to give them the facts of what happened. When holding the suspect, you need to clearly ask for their cooperation, and only use the minimum force necessary to hold them, or avoid using force entirely.  

People are only allowed to make a citizen’s arrest to stop someone committing a crime, or within a reasonable amount of time after that crime has happened. If you want to arrest someone “a reasonable amount of time” after the crime was committed, you need to be sure you have properly identified the right criminal and not an innocent lookalike. This will be questioned. 

If you want to make a citizen’s arrest on someone who did something illegal with another person’s property, you need to either be the owner of that property or have permission from its lawful owner to arrest the assailment. 

Weapons for self defence 

As mentioned above, there have been two incidents in 2023 where Canadian law considered the fatal use of legal weapons in self defence to be homicide, so if you plan on using a weapon for self defence you must be very careful to make sure whatever you do with it can be proved reasonable force in court. 

That being said, some weapons are illegal in Canada. Just as The Newcomer covered in its guide to Canadian hunting laws, anyone wishing to own a gun in Canada must apply for a gun license with the Canadian Royal Mounted Police. Also, some types of crossbows are illegal, if they are longer than 50 centimetres or can be easily aimed and fired with one hand. 

Several types of knives are illegal in Canada too, including any which are concealed (carrying any knife on you so that it is hidden and not visible), butterfly knives, any knives which open automatically (including those that use gravity or centrifugal force), weapons like shurikens or nunchaku, and wearing anything sharp such as spiked rings or gloves. You also cannot carry a knife in a car unless you have a specific permit to do so.  

Being caught with a concealed knife can land you with a maximum five-year sentence in prison, or 10 years if you were found to be intending to cause danger with the knife. 

Knives you can carry in Canada include utility knives/pocket knives, Swiss Army knives, and knives up to four inches in length that are carried in a belt buckle. It is also illegal to carry a knife above three inches or 7.62 centimetres in Canada. 

Pepper spray is illegal in Canada, and a similar item called bear spray is illegal to carry in cities, since it is only allowed to be used in the wilderness where you might be attacked by an animal.

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