New COVID-19 information line allows people to report rule-breakers

The New Brunswick government has set up an information line for people with questions about COVID-19, a line that includes the ability to report people who are believed to be violating the emergency declaration order.

But the head of Canada's civil liberties watchdog is discouraging the use of a "snitch line," saying it could create fear and division during a pandemic.

The phone line, which launched on Monday, comes after people were calling 911 to report instances of travellers who are not self-isolating as required. 

Others have taken to social media to call out businesses or individuals who appeared to be violating the emergency declaration order.

The number — 1-844-462-8387 — will operate seven days a week between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and will provide bilingual service. People can also ask questions via email at helpaide@gnb.ca.

"If anyone's in doubt, call that number," Premier Blaine Higgs said Monday afternoon.

"If anyone is concerned about compliance or they see non-compliance, I think we need to have everybody thinking about how can we deliver the results we want, and that is to maintain this outbreak at a level that we can manage it within our healthcare system."

It's not yet clear who will monitor the complaints and how they'll investigate reports about individuals.

The premier suggested individuals could face penalties such as fines for not complying, but he didn't specify an amount.

"If individuals cannot take responsibility for themselves and they are exposing a health risk to others, there's an obligation not only to them but there's an obligation for us in government," Higgs said.

'It brings out the worst of us'

"Snitch lines" can escalate fear, anxiety and panic at a time of crisis, according to Michael Bryant, the executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

"It brings out the worst of us," Bryant said.

It differs from someone calling 911 to report a crime because 911 calls come with more accountability and an ability to track down the caller as a potential witness, he said.

Michael Bryant

"Deputizing citizens to be police officers of an emergency management order is not constitutional and if it technically is, it is the makings of terrible, terrible governance and politics," Bryant said.

Bryant also questioned what authorities will do with the information they receive through the tip line and whether the government will "name and shame" people.

"It doesn't bring us together, which is what some governments are trying to do," Bryant said.

'It, in fact, divides us'

'Due diligence' needed in investigating reports

While anonymous tip lines aren't unheard of — Crimestoppers may be the best known national example — "the devil is always in the details," Ombud Charles Murray said.

He said no one wants to live in a "surveillance society" where people are informing on their neighbours.

"But at the same time, if there has been clear instruction from public health authorities that certain activities present a public risk, we would expect authorities to have an interest in that and we would expect neighbours to also have an interest in letting authorities know that," Murray said.

The key lies in what authorities will do with the information and whether authorities will do their "due diligence" when investigating reports.

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Murray pointed to the police-shooting death of Bathurst businessman Michel Vienneau as an example of why due diligence is important. Vienneau was the subject of an anonymous Crimestoppers tip that was later found to be false.

"We're not looking for a situation in which the mere allegation leads to precipitous action," Murray said.

While his staff members are working from home, Murray said the Ombud's office is still operational and can investigate if people have concerns about their privacy being violated.

He said his office is also monitoring how the state of emergency affects privacy, with the idea that the province could see a second wave of COVID-19 infections, and an accompanying second wave of restrictions, at a later date.

"We'd want the second cycle to have learned from the first cycle and to do things more effectively and to protect privacy again to the maximum effective way if we have to do this multiple times, which is a sincere possibility," Murray said.

Fines for businesses "could be in the thousands'

People who have concerns about workplace safety should call WorkSafeNB directly, the premier said Monday.

Officers with the Department of Public Safety conducted "surveillance" on 762 businesses over the weekend, finding that 43 were not complying with the rules.

"They will absolutely be checked on again today and the next phase would be a warning of what's required, either they have to shut down or they have to change their practices, depending on the business," Higgs said.

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"And then subsequently it would be a fine or closure. We will not allow them to continue in violation."

Fines for businesses "could be in the thousands," Higgs said.

"No one wants to make this law an enforcement matter with charges and fines, but we are ready to do so. And if that's what's needed for compliance, we will act.