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Ontario walks back new police powers following backlash

Last Updated Apr 17, 2021 at 11:16 pm EDT


The Ontario government backtracked on new police powers aimed at enforcing anti-pandemic measures

GTHA police services like Toronto, Peel and others said they will aim to educate first, not enforce

Criticism of Premier Doug Ford's new powers for police has been widespread and furious

Ontario reversed course on sweeping new police powers Saturday, just one day after Premier Doug Ford announced the measures that triggered a swift and furious backlash.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones says officers will no longer have the right to stop any pedestrian or vehicle to ask why they are out or request their home address.

Instead, she says, police will only be able to stop people who they have reason to believe are participating in an “organized public event or social gathering.”

“Our priority has always been to address and discourage gatherings and crowds that violate the stay-at-home order and have the potential to further spread COVID-19,” said Jones in a statement. “That is why we provided police services with the additional temporary authority to enforce the stay-at-home order by putting a stop to gatherings and crowds.”

Civil libertarians and pundits attacked the new anti-pandemic restrictions announced Friday by Ford as misguided, saying the added police powers aimed at enforcing stay-at-home orders were overkill.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association welcomed Saturday’s reversal, adding it was putting its legal challenge “on pause.”

“The new order rationalizes and narrows the unconstitutional Friday standard. The new standard is also tied to a public health objective, and avoids arbitrary detention,” said Michael Bryant, executive director of the CCLA.

Prior to the announcement, police forces from across the province stated their intention to not stop drivers or others at random.

In a tweet Saturday morning, Toronto police said they will focus on educating the public first.

“The Toronto Police Service will continue to engage, educate and enforce, but we will not be doing random stops of people or cars,” they said. “We can all do our part for the health & safety of everyone.”

Peel Regional Police also released a statement saying officers will not be doing random vehicle stops.

“I recognize the concern that this brings to our community as a whole,” said Chief Nishan Duraiappah. “As Chief of one of the most diverse communities in Canada, I would like to reassure our citizens that our officers will not be conducting random vehicle or individual stops.”

In York Region, police Chief Jim MacSween echoed Duraiappah’s statement.

“We will not be conducting random vehicle or individual stops. Enforcement will continue to be complaint-driven and proactive, with the goal of gaining compliance,” said Chief Jim MacSween. “Our actions will focus on those individuals who overtly put others in danger and citizens refusing to comply will be charged appropriately.”

A number of other Ontario police services such as Durham Region, Halton Region, Barrie, South Simcoe, Stratford, Windsor, Kingston, Ottawa and Thunder Bay have also said they will not be conducting random checks.

Ontario Provincial Police said they would at interprovincial points of entry by road to screen all vehicles starting Monday and that anyone not travelling for essential reasons will be refused entry. The exceptions only apply for work, medical care, transportation of goods and the exercising of Treaty rights for Indigenous persons.

There are concerns if parents and/or students travelling back from universities or schools in Manitoba or Quebec will be allowed to cross the border by car into Ontario under the new restrictions.

Politicians were among those denouncing the new police powers.

In a note to constituents, Jill Andrew, a New Democrat provincial legislator, said the measures show the Ford government is out of touch.

“Let’s be very real here: We are not going to police our way out of the pandemic,” he said. “The reality here is that this will likely impact Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.”

“I am very concerned about arbitrary stops of people by police at any time,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a tweet.

While violating restrictions can carry a $750 fine, failure to provide police with requested information can result in criminal charges, according to the province’s association of police chiefs.

The new anti-pandemic measures include further restrictions on social gatherings and essential retailers, the closure of some outdoor recreation centres and a pause on non-essential construction projects.

In announcing them, Ford said the province was “on its heels” and new measures were urgently needed.

Essential retailers must lower capacity limits to 25 per cent, indoor religious services are limited to 10 people, and non-essential construction has to shut down.