One honest mistake, a poor decision, an unfair verdict—the paths to a criminal record are many but they all result in similarly harsh consequences that can impact your future.

Many people convicted of a crime in Canada must endure a criminal record for the rest of their lives. But it’s not just convictions that appear on the record—any arrest and charge, even if subsequently found not guilty, will be visible to the public.

We receive many inquiries about how to seal or remove a criminal record in Canada. Here’s what you need to know…

Potential consequences of a criminal record

If you have been accused and charged with a crime and were fingerprinted in Canada, you have a criminal record. It is not necessary to be convicted. In most cases, it’s not necessary even to have attended a Canadian criminal court to have a record.

This may seem unfair, considering that a criminal record can negatively impact many areas of life. Records can be checked for many reasons and by many people.

Most commonly, the potential consequences include the following:

  • Employment: prospective employers often check criminal backgrounds, and some positions/occupations require a clean criminal record—including volunteer work.
  • Education: entry into some universities may be impacted by a criminal record (though it’s not a requirement to check).
  • Travel: the U.S. may make it difficult for Canadian citizens with a criminal record to travel there.
  • Immigration: for non-citizens, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) routinely rejects applications for residency/citizenship and refugee status based on a criminal record.
  • Deportation: This may even apply to permanent residents who have lived most of their lives in Canada.

If your record says that you have been convicted of a crime, that’s all the information provided. Info on the circumstances of the case or how you have changed your life since the conviction is not visible.

How is a criminal record removed?

Your record will appear on the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database. Only in exceptional circumstances will it be automatically removed.

How you should approach the removal of your criminal record depends on several factors, including:

  • The outcome of the criminal investigation and charges against you (not guilty verdict, discharge, a conviction for a criminal offence, etc.)
  • The number of charges against you
  • The policies of the local police service

Depending on these factors, the removal of a criminal record might involve the destruction of fingerprints and photographs, sealing of the outcome record, a purge, and a destruction or record suspension (“pardon”).

Each type of record removal has a different waiting period before a convicted person is eligible to request removal. Let’s take a closer look.

Not-guilty outcomes

Not-guilty outcomes must be destroyed or sealed. For the purposes of record removal, they include the following:

  • Acquittals
  • Withdrawn and dismissed charges
  • Charges that were stayed
  • Peace bonds (even though they often require an admission of guilt)

A not-guilty outcome may be destroyed and/or sealed immediately in some limited circumstances. Usually, however, a waiting period of one year applies to charges that were stayed. For a peace bond record to be removed, the individual must wait until the peace bond has expired.

The decision of whether or not to destroy and/or seal the record rests with the local police that laid the charges, usually based on the nature of the offence and the criminal profile of the individual found not guilty.

If the application is successful, complete file destruction may take anywhere from three to eighteen months and is often more complex and drawn out than it should be.

Absolute and conditional discharges

If you’re discharged for a criminal charge, you are found guilty but not convicted by the court.

An absolute discharge means that there is no sentence or condition to be satisfied. A conditional discharge comes with various conditions that, if met, will result in no sentence being applied.

Either type of discharge will appear on your criminal record and removing it requires an RCMP purge and the local police to destroy or seal the police file. This cannot be done until after one year from the final court date for absolute discharges and three years for conditional discharges.

Often, RCMP files are purged automatically but with the police file under the jurisdiction of the local police, their policies usually dictate how difficult this part is.

Convicted of a criminal offence

Most people understand that if you’re convicted of a criminal offence, it will appear on your criminal record.

Once you have been convicted, completed your sentence, and demonstrated that you are a law-abiding citizen, a record suspension (“pardon”) can remove the information from public access.

You may be eligible for a record suspension in Ontario after you have served your sentence (fine, restitution, probation or jail time) and then waited another five years for summary offences or 10 years for indictments.

A record suspension is available for almost every type of crime, except Schedule 1 offences (sexual offences involving children and young people under the age of eighteen), and those convicted of multiple serious offences (two or more years in jail on more than three occasions).

To ascertain eligibility for a record suspension, discuss your situation with a criminal defence lawyer well before the waiting period has expired as you may need to meet other criteria before approaching the Parole Board of Canada for a suspension.

Record suspensions generally take between three to eighteen months to complete but bear in mind that they can be revoked for re-offenders.

Record suspensions and travelling to the U.S.

After a record suspension, members of the public can no longer see that you have a criminal record. However, certain legal agencies can still access that information under specific legal circumstances.

You should be able to travel to the U.S. without the worry of being turned back at the border. If you don’t yet have a record suspension, you may need to obtain a US Entry Waiver before leaving home.

For legal advice about removing a criminal record, speak to one of our criminal defence lawyers in Ottawa during a free consultation.