The bill? $5.8 million and counting.
“We were shocked,” said Alex Luscombe, a PhD student in criminology at the University of Toronto and co-creator of Policing the Pandemic, a mapping project launched a month ago to track the ways in which COVID-19 orders are being enforced nationwide.
“It’s a hell of a lot of money to try to extract from people that are under financial distress right now.”
Since early April, physical-distancing enforcement blitzes have prompted people to go public with stories of receiving tickets for playing basketball, standing in a park or walking their dogs. Academics, criminologists and human rights organizations have sounded the alarm over the impact on people’s rights and freedoms while questioning whether fines actually serve as a deterrent.
And while Luscombe says some of the early concerns over Ontario- and Quebec-style enforcement being adopted by other provinces hasn’t materialized, the fact that the total fine tally is approaching $6 million is staggering.
“It’s clearly adding up,” Luscombe says. “At a time when people are being laid off, struggling to make rent and buy groceries and need to be doing everything they can to prepare to survive this indefinitely, I don’t see how adding a $900 or $2,000 fine is going to help.”
Quebec leads the way so far, with more than 3,000 fines, per the report. Ontario comes second with 930 reported fines, followed by Nova Scotia with 516 and Alberta with 44.
A government spokesperson for Quebec acknowledged but did not immediately respond to questions about its enforcement strategies, including questions about how it determined the cost of coronavirus-related fines.
Stephen Warner, press secretary for Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, said: “Local enforcement personnel are encouraged to exercise discretion and use a graduated approach when enforcing provincial emergency orders.”
Warner did not respond to a question about the rationale for fining people at a time when many are applying in record numbers for federal support to pay their bills, except to say the decision was based on the recommendation of the chief medical officer of health to declare a provincial emergency.
When asked by Global News how he reconciles federal support for cash-strapped Canadians with provinces doling out tickets, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not answer.
Instead, he reiterated the importance of social distancing and staying home while noting that “different jurisdictions have different, more specific rules suitable for their own jurisdictions.”
The fines are “absurdly disproportionate to the alleged offence,” says Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).
And if $5.8 million seems high, Bryant says the total figure is likely even higher, but it’s hard to know exactly because not all governments and police departments are disclosing the extent of their enforcement.
The one exception, he says, appears to be Winnipeg, which provides updates online about where in the city officials are warning people and how many people they’re warning every single day.
“The government rightly tells people all the good things it’s doing, but it needs to disclose this information, too,” Bryant says.
“Some will think this is great and should be higher, some like us will think that it’s fundamentally misguided and unconstitutional.”
In the vacuum left by the lack of information, Bryant says confusion persists.
Aurora, Ont., in particular, he says, has been continuing to enforce the 15-day window for a person to pay their ticket despite the province saying the typical, non-pandemic deadlines do not currently apply. A spokesperson for the Town of Aurora said “officers are aware of this change in process and it has been re-communicated to them to ensure consistency and compliance.”
That clarity is important, says Bryant.
Just the fact that cities started ticketing before setting up systems to manage these new types of fines might render them invalid, he says, on the basis that the tickets themselves display out-of-date information about deadlines and procedures for challenging them in court.
“Arguably, all the tickets are invalid, every single one of them.”
In many cases, Bryant says the CCLA will be pushing for amnesty for some tickets — particularly those given to people experiencing homelessness.
It’s not surprising that laws and regulations enacted in a state of emergency are not entirely well thought out, says Vincent Wong, the William C. Graham research associate for the international human rights program at the University of Toronto’s law school.
Nor, he notes, is it surprising to see policing front and centre; it’s par for the course in an emergency.
“Our immediate response is ‘Well, we need more laws and more policing,’ so many of these powers are rammed through without any kind of consultation, and they’re couched in overbroad and vague terms only dubiously related to public health objectives,” he says.
In the early days of the pandemic, Wong notes, some people were quick to position COVID-19 as the great equalizer, rendering everyone — white or black or Indigenous, rich and poor, housed or homeless — on equal footing.
But they’re not. It’s more accurate to paint the pandemic as “the great revealer,” Wong says.
“It reveals so much about the underbelly of how our society functions,” he says. “The care workers, the cleaners, the people that work in agriculture and who are treated to essentially horrible conditions and horrible pay are the people who have to keep working in order for us to survive.”
Yet, he says, enforcement measures are quickly passed with little discussion about how they might cause harm, as people are told “it’s not the time to do intersectional analysis because we are facing an emergency.”
But failing to do so isn’t without repercussions, says Wong, who works closely with Butterfly, a Toronto-based Asian and migrant sex worker support network.
One woman has been sleeping in her closed shop to better protect her elderly, immunocompromised parents with whom she typically shares a very small apartment.
She’s received five tickets to date for opening her shop (which she hasn’t), Wong says, an example of “how punitive this kind of aggressive law enforcement fine and ticketing regime is for migrant, racialized workers and how these campaigns can actually be counterproductive to the objectives of public health.”
Ultimately, Luscombe says, if ticketing is to persist, government officials and police owe the public an explanation about what their strategy is and what evidence it’s based on.
“People just assume this is going to be effective, and I don’t think that’s good enough,” he says.
“It’s extremely contradictory logic to be trying to help people on the one hand while at the same time causing harm and taking money away from them on the other.”