Ontario walks back new policing powers following pushback

Ontario walks back new policing powers following pushback

Ontario's government walked back some of its new policing powers one day after they were announced, now only allowing police to stop vehicles or people if they are suspected of participating in an organized public event or social gathering.

Doug Ford's government initially said on Friday that police could stop people at random and ask why they are not at home and where they live as part of a strengthened stay-at-home order to help stem a rising number of COVID-19 cases.

In a statement Saturday, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said officers will no longer have the right to stop any pedestrian or vehicle to ask why they are out or request their home address.

"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," Jones said

"Every individual who is required to provide a police officer or other provincial offences officer with information shall promptly comply."

The statement said the government's priority has always been to discourage gatherings and crowds that violate the stay-at-home order. The price of a ticket if individuals refuse to comply remains $750.

"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," the statement read.

The change came after several police services across Ontario took to social media on Friday saying they won't comply with the new powers to stop people and question their reason for leaving home.

Legal challenge on pause

Before the changes were made, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) issued a statement Saturday saying it had retained counsel and was preparing to go to court in the coming days to challenge Friday's announced regulations.

But following the amendments to the regulations by the solicitor general Saturday night, the CCLA said it would "take yes for an answer and put this legal challenge on pause" as the revised order "restores an investigative detention standard for police stops."

CCLA executive director Michael Bryant, a former Liberal attorney general in Ontario, had previously called the new policing measures "a Black Friday of rights slashing by Queen's Park," following the Ontario government's announcement on Friday.

"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," Bryant said in a statement Saturday night.

"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."

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the organization was pausing its legal challenge after amendments to the regulations were made by the provincial government.
Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the organization was pausing its legal challenge after amendments to the regulations were made by the provincial government.(Submitted by Michael Bryant)

In an earlier statement from Saturday, Bryant said the original regulations brought "back the odious 'driving while Black' police stop," and introduced "a 'walking while Black' offence."

"Blanket powers for police to stop vehicles like this bends our constitutional freedoms too far and will cause a rash of racial profiling," Bryant said.

Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie tweeted his own reaction to the original regulations, saying he'd be "checking out our Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]" and that the city will be reviewing it.

"I'm concerned about this," his tweet said. "Either way, we're not going to be policing our way out of this pandemic, that's for sure."

In Toronto, Mayor John Tory tweeted that he was "very concerned about arbitrary stops of people by police at any time." He later tweeted his gratitude that Toronto police will not be conducting random stops.

Police services across Ontario refused compliance

On Friday, a number of police services took to social media to say they had no intention of conducting "random" stops.

The announcements were largely welcomed by people online, but others — including author and activist Desmond Cole, who has been outspoken on issues of police racism and use of force — were skeptical that they were anything more than a public relations tactic.

"All police are saying is, 'If we stop you, it will be for a good reason,'" Cole told CBC News.

"That doesn't help members of the public, Black and Indigenous people, people without a place to stay right now who are outside, disabled people who are always targeted by the police. It doesn't give us any comfort."

Cole said he saw the orders as an attempt by Ford to shift blame as COVID-19 cases rise and more "people are scared."

"Premier Ford needs a scapegoat," he said. "So just as he did last April, he's saying individuals will now be punished for being outside."

'Don't make cops the bad guys here!'

Multiple police services indicated many forces didn't want to take on this responsibility.

The president of the Peel Regional Police Association, for example, took to Twitter to urge the government: "Don't make cops the bad guys here!"

In a subsequent statement, Peel Regional Police confirmed it would not conduct "random vehicle or individual stops."

Police in the Ontario municipalities of Toronto, Hamilton, Peterborough, London, Waterloo, Niagara, Ottawa, York Region, Windsor and Cornwall had all released similar statements.

There was no specific mention of a change to policing by the Ontario Provincial Police, which has been tasked with enforcing interprovincial border closures.

In his statement, Ottawa Police Service Chief Peter Sloly said the force was being "very mindful of the perception of the broader public as well as within our more marginalized, racialized and/or Indigenous/Aboriginal/Inuit peoples."

He said the police did "not want these powers to impact public trust."

Toronto police, which initially said it needed more time to review the changes, tweeted on Saturday morning that it "will continue to engage, educate and enforce, but we will not be doing random stops of people or cars."

The London Police Services Board said it had "serious concerns" about whether the provincial government's expanded police powers are even constitutional.

"We cannot enforce our way out of the pandemic," Dr. Javeed Sukhera, the board's chair, said in a statement released on Saturday.