The Problem with Canada’s Vulnerable Sector Checks


Canadian teacher with vulnerable sector check to work with students in classroom

The wrong hiring decision can cost you in a number of ways. There’s the lost time on onboarding and training, and the high cost of finding a replacement, but more damaging could be the legal consequences stemming from hiring someone who endangers your employees or clients. This is where background screening comes in – it’s a way to get more information on who you’re hiring to make sure they’re a good, safe option for your role.

In Canada, vulnerable sector checks (VSCs) have long been a standard procedure for screening people who work with vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, or people with disabilities. However, it’s important to acknowledge that over time these checks have become less effective due to legislative changes and other factors.

So, what should you do?

In this blog post, we explore why vulnerable sector checks are outdated and can create a false sense of security for end users. If it’s not mandated as part of your background screening policy or industry-specific legislation, we explore what you can use instead to get the right information. 

Types of Criminal Record Checks in Canada

There are three types of criminal record checks that HR departments across Canada use to make more informed hiring decisions: basic, enhanced, and vulnerable sector checks. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) offers all three types of criminal record checks through its regional detachments. Two of the three, basic and enhanced, are available through third party background screening vendors. (FYI – “Enhanced” criminal record checks go by another name in Ontario, “criminal records and judicial matters check.)

Generally, all criminal record checks involve a search of the applicant’s name and date of birth for criminal convictions in the National Repository of Criminal Records, which is accessed via the Canadian Police Information Centre’s (CPIC) identification data bank. From there, they get more and more detailed based on the requirements of the prospective employer/volunteer agency and the role.

Caregiver with vulnerable sector check to work with elderly in retirement home

What’s a Vulnerable Sector Check

Some employment and volunteer positions require a vulnerable sector check (VSC). 

A VSC is a Canada-specific check that goes beyond a basic criminal record check by searching the National Repository for the existence of any suspended or pardoned sexual offences, in accordance with the Criminal Records Act. It also includes a “local indices check” to surface records found in local police records management systems including “non-conviction information” (e.g., informal police contacts, criminal charges that were withdrawn, stayed, or dismissed, 911 calls, etc.). However, for our purposes, we’re going to focus on the sexual offence information.

Vulnerable sector checks are routinely requested for positions that involve working with children (under 18 years old), the elderly, and people with disabilities. They’re designed to identify individuals who may have a criminal history that may pose a specific risk to these vulnerable populations. Due to the nature of the information pulled, VSCs must be conducted by the local police service where the applicant currently resides. (There was a time before 2009 where these more in-depth checks could be conducted by third party vendors, but since then the RCMP has declared they have to be run by local police despite many vendors being able to disclose the same results through their access to the same data banks.)

What Shows Up In a Vulnerable Sector Check

A VSC discloses every criminal offence of which the individual has been convicted for which a record suspension hasn’t been issued or granted.

What’s a Record Suspension?

Canada’s federal Criminal Records Act, 1985 defines what a record suspension is and how the process is carried out. You can petition for a suspension through the Parole Board of Canada. Here’s more information on applying for a record suspension. The Parole Board of Canada has control over granting, refusing, or revoking a record suspension. Once granted, a record suspension allows individuals who have completed their sentence to have their criminal record kept separate from other criminal records housed in the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC).

VSCs also disclose every finding of guilt under the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act, 2002, every criminal offence of which the individual has been found guilty and received an absolute discharge (unless the request is made more than one year after the date of the absolute discharge), it also discloses every finding of guilt under the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act, 2002, every criminal offence for which there’s an outstanding charge or warrant to arrest, every criminal offence of which the individual has been found guilt and received an absolute discharge (unless the request is made more than one year after the date of the absolute discharge), and criminal offences of which the individual has been found guilty and received a conditional discharge on conditions set out in a probation order (unless the request is made more than three years after the date of the condition discharge).

As with other basic and enhanced police checks/criminal record checks (again, criminal record checks go by a variety of names across Canada), it doesn’t disclose summary convictions if the request is made more than five years after the date of the summary conviction.

One area where a vulnerable sector check differs from and goes deeper than a basic or enhanced criminal record check is that it discloses criminal offences with which the individual has been charged that resulted in a finding of not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder (unless the request comes more than five years after the date of the finding or if they received an absolute discharge).

The Problem with Vulnerable Sector Checks

Like any other over broad screening, using the wrong type of check can result in unnecessary delays for employers and applicants alike. The processing time for vulnerable sector checks is usually longer, which can lead to delays in hiring decisions and potential frustration for both employers and candidates. However, on top of improper application of VSCs and misinterpretation of the directive, the issue with vulnerable sector checks also has to do with a lack of consistency and limitations of the Pardoned Sex Offender Data Bank.

Misinterpretation of the Directive

In order to get a vulnerable sector check, the applicant must present signed documentation from the organization outlining how the role meets the criteria. It’s an offence to conduct a vulnerable sector check on someone if the need for it doesn’t meet the requirements in the Criminal Records Act, notably the requirement that the role and position is one of trust or authority over vulnerable populations. However, in some instances, organizations and employers have policies regarding the need for vulnerable sector checks simply because the role has contact with children or vulnerable people – this is an incorrect interpretation of the law.

In the instance of contact with children or vulnerable people, an enhanced criminal record check would suffice…and possibly be more comprehensive.

Lack of Consistency

As we mentioned up top, a vulnerable sector check is a standard criminal record check, plus a search for applicable record suspensions (formerly called “pardons”) related to sexually-based offences using the Pardoned Sex Offender data bank search. If a related offence shows up, it’s up to the agency conducting the check to determine whether to disclose the information based on their interpretation of the ministerial directive concerning the release of criminal record information  – not all information is disclosed.

Limitations to the Pardoned Sex Offender Data Bank

The Pardoned Sex Offender Data Bank contains the names and dates of births of individuals who’ve been pardoned of sex-related convictions.

On March 13, 2012, Bill C-10, a part of the Safes Streets and Communities Act,  amended the record suspension program in the Criminal Records Act and people convicted of sexual offences against minors became ineligible for record suspensions (pardons). Therefore, a vulnerable sector check isn’t always a reliable way to vet someone who’ll be working with vulnerable populations.

Other Information Not Disclosed

A vulnerable sector check doesn’t including the following information that might also impact someone’s ability to work with children and vulnerable people:

  • Sex-related offences outside of Canada;
  • Other convictions that may pose job risks, e.g. violent behaviour, drug use, etc.; and
  • Whether an individual is listed in a Sex Offender Registry (including other provinces and countries).

What to Use Instead of Vulnerable Sector Checks: Enhanced Criminal Record Checks

Given all this, vulnerable sector checks may not provide the whole view of a person’s background. This can result in the failure to identify individuals who pose a risk to your company or organization. If there’s flexibility in your background screening policy, one effective alternative to vulnerable sector checks (or something that you might want to add) might be an enhanced criminal record check.

Here’s how enhanced criminal record checks compare to VSCs:

Table Comparing Enhanced Criminal Record Check and Vulnerable Sector Checks by Criteria Searched

Go Beyond the Usual: Fact, Accurate Results

Don’t risk hiring someone with a criminal record that could put your company at risk.

It could be time to update your screening policy. While vulnerable sector checks have been a standard practice in Canada for safeguarding vulnerable populations, they have limitations – there’s a lack of consistency and other important information that might pose job-related risks isn’t disclosed.

Book a demo with one of our Canadian screening experts if you’d like to explore if VSCs are the right way to collect the information you need and how enhanced criminal record checks could provide a more complete picture.