The mayor of Alberta’s largest city says he’s frustrated to hear that tickets given to people for breaching COVID-19 public health orders are being thrown out in the courts.
“I think it’s handcuffing the police and their work and we need to do much, much better,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Monday, calling the situation “incredibly frustrating.”
“I’m calling on the court system to take this as seriously as the police do.”
Large groups have regularly been gathering in Calgary public spaces without masks and in violation of group limits in protest of health measures.
Nenshi said police have been better able to use their power to crack down on vandalism and harassment at those events than they have on the violations of public health orders.
“In one really disgusting way, the escalation of these activities has actually given the police a little more ability,” he said. “It’s like Al Capone on tax evasion.”
Nenshi made his comments during a city council meeting that included a presentation by Calgary Police Commission chairwoman Bonita Croft.
“(Police) are putting significant resources into managing these protests, attending these events and doing their best to enforce the health orders,” she said.
“And the response is to continue to violate them. And the accountability in terms of convictions and fines have not been at a level that seems to be working to change the course of all that.”
Earlier in the city council meeting, Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley shared a story of a young woman who was harassed by so-called “anti-lockdown” demonstrators while trying to get on a Calgary LRT train.
“She was verbally abused, harassed, cigarette butts flicked in her face, she couldn’t get on the train,” Woolley told council. “When these groups got on the train, other citizens who were trying to get to where they wanted to go, got off. None of them were wearing masks.
“This (type of) situation we’re starting to hear more and more — particularly in the downtown — is becoming untenable. People are scared.”
Nenshi said he’s heard from Calgary Police Service Chief Mark Neufeld that the CPS is stepping up its enforcement activities, which the mayor was glad to hear.
“But at the same time, you can imagine if you’re an officer and you know this ticket’s going to get thrown out, then you certainly don’t have much of an incentive to issue it.”
At Monday evening’s meeting of the emergency management committee, councillors discussed options to enhance enforcement of public health orders.
Kay Choi, manager at the city’s community standards department, said city enforcement officers have handed out more than 200 tickets for breaking the Public Health Act and more than 400 tickets for breaking the city’s mask bylaw.
“What remains a challenge is that the people who are subject to the enforcement, we’re not seeing a change in their behaviour,” Choi said.
“The tendency is to invite enforcement and use it as a platform for emphasizing their political or philosophical agenda through social and other mainstream media.”
Calgary Police Service (CPS) Chief Mark Neufeld called the enforcement strategy “probably sporadic,” saying suspension of liquor or business licences have been effective in getting businesses in line with the public health orders.
“I think where it has not been effective, or very effective, is in relation to what I would call the complex or recalcitrant clients that we’re dealing with over and over again, and a lot of those are actually probably linked to the protest movement,” Neufeld said.
The CPS chief said Alberta’s courts, having to deal with reduced capacity because of the pandemic, advised police to be more strategic in sending mask violations to court.
“If you couple that with the fact that these folks are actually being supported legally by certain legal groups that are interested in constitutional challenges, I don’t know what the downside is for them in terms of continuing their behaviour or how this type of enforcement would actually act as a deterrent,” the CPS chief said.
In a statement to Global News, the justice minister’s press secretary said: “The Alberta Crown Prosecutor Service continues to work with Alberta police services and Public Health Act investigators to prosecute violations of the order of the chief medical officer of health.”
“There is no policy or decision to systematically withdraw such violation tickets; all such tickets are being assessed in the same way that other Criminal Code offences and provincial offences are assessed using the ACPS standard for prosecution: there must be a reasonable likelihood of conviction and there must exist a public interest in the prosecution,” Blaise Boehmer wrote in an email.
Boehmer said that the justice ministry is aware of 576 Public Health Act tickets filed to the provincial court between March 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. Less than half — 40 per cent — have been withdrawn, 38 per cent remain in court, about 12 per cent resulted in a conviction or were paid before reaching court and some 10 per cent were quashed or otherwise resolved.
The emergency management committee voted unanimously to recommend that city council increases mask bylaw fines from $100 to $500. Council will consider that increase on May 10.
Despite vocal resistance to public health restrictions, the COVID-19 situation in the city continues to worsen.
“We have the highest active cases in Canada. Our growth trend is also the highest of anywhere in North America,” Sue Henry, chief of Calgary’s Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), said.
Henry noted that the city continues to break records for new cases, active cases, hospitalizations and ICU patients.
As a result, CEMA moved into Phase 4 of its plan — the most severe — and is planning for worst-case scenarios.
Henry said the provincial health restrictions are “not working to flatten the curve and our cases have continued to grow.”
“The variants are winning the race, and we cannot continue down this road and hope that vaccinations alone will get us past this surge,” Henry said.
“We can’t stop the transmission of COVID without the assistance and co-operation of all citizens in following the public health measures, and every Calgarian needs to be part of a solution.”
The mayor ended the meeting with a preview of what could come from the provincial government.
“My indications are that the province has heard very much the message on enforcement, and that we can expect that there will be a significant announcement tomorrow,” Naheed Nenshi said.
“There are some things around business licences and so on that might be able to be pulled by the city, but it’s important for us to look at all of (the options),” Nenshi told reporters.
“Now, these are resorts of last measure, but it’s time to use them if we have them.”
At the Calgary city council meeting, Nenshi said people need to understand the rules for gatherings, mask wearing and other measures aren’t just guidelines.
“Even though the premier sometimes doesn’t sound firm on this, this is actually the law,” he said. “And it’s important that everyone follow the law because we live in a democratic society.”
Kenney, in a series of Twitter posts on Sunday, scolded the rodeo-goers near the community of Bowden.
“Not only are gatherings like this a threat to public health, they are a slap in the face to everybody who is observing the rules to keep themselves and their fellow Albertans safe,” Kenney wrote.
“If we do not begin to bend the curve, our health-care system could very well be overwhelmed in a matter of weeks.”
Alberta Health Services and the RCMP did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday about any potential enforcement arising from the anti-lockdown rodeo. A spokesman for Justice Minister Kaycee Madu referred to Kenney’s Sunday statement.
Alberta had a record 2,433 new COVID-19 infections on Saturday and the province has Canada’s worst rate of COVID-19 cases. As of Sunday, Alberta had a seven-day rate of 296 cases per 100,000 people, with Ontario the next highest at 170.
–with files from Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press