The Ontario government has backpedaled from an earlier order that allowed random police checks of motorists and pedestrians, and closed playgrounds, following public outrage over both the playground ban and the controversial move to greatly increase police powers during the pandemic.
Police officers and other provincial offences officers still have the authority to conduct those checks but only if they have “reason” to believe the stay-at-home order has been breached, the government said.
Late Saturday afternoon, Ontario’s solicitor general put out a statement to clarify the authority given to enforcement officers when conducting inspections and investigations into potential violations of public health measures restricting gatherings and crowds.
“If a police officer or other provincial offences officer has reason to suspect that you are participating in an organized public event or social gathering, they may require you to provide information to ensure you are complying with restrictions,” the statement said.
“Every individual who is required to provide a police officer or other provincial offences officer with information shall promptly comply.”
The clarification was welcomed by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which dropped a plan to legally challenge the government over the increased powers for law enforcement.
“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,” its executive director, Michael Bryant, said in a news release.
“It means people should return to being as free as they were before this happened. That may be a freedom wrongly curbed by racial profiling, police bias and discrimination, against which we will continue to fight.”
Earlier on Saturday at least 30 police forces, including the largest in Toronto, Peel and elsewhere, said they would not use the newly granted powers. It was one of two significant blows on Saturday to Premier Doug Ford’s announcement of measures addressing the alarming rise in COVID-19 cases across the province — measures that were largely panned by scientific and legal experts.
The government walked back the ban on using playgrounds, which was one of the restrictions announced at a much anticipated news conference on Friday, along with banning outdoor gatherings with nonhousehold members and the additional police powers.
Ford tweeted Saturday that an amended regulation would allow playgrounds after all but didn’t clarify any of the other new rules.
“Ontario’s enhanced restrictions were always intended to stop large gatherings where spread can happen,” Ford’s tweet said.
Earlier in the day, a large number of police forces in the province issued statements saying they would not use the increased powers.
“Our officers will not be doing random stops of people or cars,” Toronto’s interim police chief, Jim Ramer, tweeted on Saturday morning.
He said the force “will continue to engage and enforce equitably and effectively, recognizing always that we must inspire public trust.”
His was joined by similar statements from: Barrie Police, Brantford Police, Cobourg Police, Cornwall Police, Durham Regional Police, Greater Sudbury Police, Guelph Police, Halton Regional Police, Hamilton Police, Halton Police, Hanover Police, Kawartha Lakes Police, Kingston Police, LaSalle Police, London Police, Niagara Regional Police, North Bay Police, Ottawa Police, Peel Regional Police, Peterborough Police, Sarnia Police, Sault Ste. Marie Police, South Simcoe Police, St. Thomas Police, Stratford Police, Thunder Bay Police, Waterloo Regional Police, Windsor Police, Woodstock Police and York Regional Police.
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On Friday, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones had outlined the new policing powers, saying, “police will have the authority to require any individual who is not in a place of residence to, first, provide their purpose for not being at home and provide their home address. Police will also have the authority to stop a vehicle to inquire about an individual’s reason for leaving their residence.”
The regulation came into effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m. It allowed for random stops of anyone outside a place of residence across the province. Fines for those breaking the stay-at-home order can be as much as $750.
The resistance to the new rules from police forces comes amid ongoing criticism of police treatment of Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and continued resistance to street checks — called “carding” — of those not under arrest. Investigations led by the Star’s Jim Rankin have found that, in Toronto, carding has disproportionately affected those groups.
Halton Police Chief Steve Tanner told the Star in an interview Saturday they got short notice of the changes in two teleconferences, at least one of which included the premier and solicitor general on Friday.
“We had consultation that way and were told different bits of information about what the changes would be and the fact police would be given this extraordinary power to stop vehicles,” Tanner said, adding more of a heads up would have been “great.”
But Tanner didn’t plan to have his officers stopping pedestrians or motorists.
“I would never expect and I don’t think it’s the intention for police officers to randomly stop anybody for no reason at all,” he said.
He said officers will still need “reasonable and probable grounds” to stop people, apart from R.I.D.E checks, but he couldn’t think of what that reason would be during the stay-at-home order.
“We do have a duty and responsibility to try to keep people safe. But we’re not going to do that in a reckless, careless, random way,” he said.
Peel Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah, in a statement Saturday, said that force would not be using the new powers.
“I recognize the concern that this brings to our community as a whole,” the statement said. “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.”
The Ontario Provincial Police — which is governed by the province and provides contracted police services in areas without their own forces — tweeted Friday they would enforce the new rules.
Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s former community safety and correctional services minister under premier Kathleen Wynne, said that government brought in legislation in 2016 on street checks that requires officers to tell people they have a right to walk away without giving any identifying information if they are not under arrest.
“That regulation is still in force,” he told the Star on Saturday, suggesting the new regulations were in conflict with the old rules.
With files from Nicholas Keung and Wendy Gillis
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags
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