A Canadian Civil Liberties Association analysis of an estimated $13 million worth of COVID-19 fines issued, to mid-June, shows a correlation between provinces, such as B.C., that used an incentive-based or “carrot” approach to physical distancing measures and low rates of the disease.
The June 24 Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) report Stay Off The Grass shows three provinces have accounted for an estimated 98% of the country’s COVID-19-related fines by law enforcement officers – Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia.
While the report does not explicitly link law enforcement measures to provincial case counts, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia have the highest COVID-19 deaths per capita among Canadian provinces.
The report does assert that a punitive or “stick” approach to public health is unsuccessful, now and historically: “Trying to police our way out of this pandemic is unimaginative, sometimes unconstitutional, and ineffective.
“When rules don’t make sense, people stop listening to those in authority. When laws are unworkable or indecipherable, people ignore them.”
By gleaning provincial law enforcement data and media reports, CCLA estimated 10,000 COVID-19-related charges were laid between April 1 and June 15. Quebec authorities had issued 6,600; Ontario authorities issued 2,853 and Nova Scotia authorities issued 555.
However, “Not all jurisdictions relied on enforcement and penalties,” CCLA stated. “In British Columbia, for example, physical distancing was, for the most part, a public health recommendation rather than a legal requirement.
“Police and bylaw officers were not permitted to enforce public health orders – and the government put out clear guidance to law enforcement emphasizing their limited role and the clear need to focus on education and public health support,” CCLA reported.
“Enforcement was also restrained in Manitoba,” CCLA noted.
B.C. and Manitoba also didn’t enact as many strict measures – keeping daycares open and not closing public spaces entirely, for instance – even while its case counts rose in April.
And the province’s biggest city shadowed the advice of provincial health officer Bonnie Henry, according to the Vancouver Courier on March 23. Early public education campaigns about the dangers of the virus and the importance of avoiding crowds were well underway in Vancouver, then.
City of Vancouver manager Sadhu Johnston had cited concerns about the infringement of citizens’ rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in ticketing individuals and taking police officers away from other, more pressing duties in the city.
“Having police officers trolling parks and ticketing people is at this point – given all of their other work – not a top priority,” Johnston said. “They don’t have the bandwidth to do that.”
CCLA estimated B.C. has only seen 22 COVID-19 tickets issued to June 15. Henry is presently reporting single-digit new case counts each day.
Of the remaining provinces and territories, Alberta had issued the most charges at 129, followed by Saskatchewan (44), Manitoba (30).
Most of the offences relate to provincial emergency legislation (2,827 alleged violations) and various public health laws (7,206 alleged violations), CCLA stated.
CCLA concluded that any second wave of COVID-19 should be met with “a robust, democratic, constitutionally-compliant public health approach. Politicians ought to “resist the temptation – and the calls from scared constituents – to back up every public health recommendation with the force of law and give a carte blanche to law enforcement.”
CCLA added, “Elected leaders frustrated with public behaviour will need to be more self-critical than finger-wagging.
“Our leaders need to lead better, by better example, through better advocacy and social supports, not by wielding powers to punish heretofore benign behaviour.”
The report suggests, via interviews with Canadians handed penalties, there was unequal application and impact of the laws, which had been applied in “dubious” and “irrational” ways – and this, according to CCLA, can harm public trust in otherwise sensible public health recommendations and education.
“The experiences to date suggest that specific communities – including black, Indigenous and other racialized communities, those with precarious housing, recent immigrants, the LGBTQ2S, and young persons – are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 law enforcement.”
For example, gay and/or mixed-race couples walking together in public reported being stopped and questioned by police or bylaw officials about their household status. There have also been media reports of people experiencing homelessness having been ticketed in Montreal, Hamilton and Toronto, CCLA noted.
The ticketing also impacts people who live without green space. Those in townhouses or detached homes outside city centres are less likely to be ticketed, noted CCLA. And so, many families have been ticketed for children climbing on park benches or playgrounds.
“The dubious circumstances under which many tickets were issued have been compounded by further confusion regarding how to challenge the tickets in court,” added CCLA.
“Public trust wanes,” said CCLA, “when we feel that laws are irrational, that police and politicians are more concerned about quotas than safety. And public health suffers when the very communities that need the most support are the ones experiencing the most repression.”