The “overzealous” enforcement of COVID-19 physical distancing rules across Canada has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people, according to a new report.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the Policing the Pandemic Mapping Project said Wednesday that the COVID-19 crisis has been used as a pretext for law enforcement officers to stop people of colour and force them to identify themselves.
Known as carding or street checks, the practice has been widely condemned for years as unjustly targeting Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour, people with mental health issues, and people living in homelessness.
“Overzealous, technical enforcement of confusing, broad, and vague laws frequently led to fines that were completely disconnected with the goal of protecting public health,” reads the report, “Stay off the Grass: COVID-19 and Law Enforcement in Canada.”
Abby Deshman, the CCLA’s criminal justice program director and co-author of the report, told VICE that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out existing inequalities in Canada.
“The systemic discrimination in policing—the disparate impacts of law enforcement—is a longstanding problem, and we are seeing those trends repeated in this context,” she said.
In the report, the researchers said approximately 10,000 COVID-related fines were issued across Canada between April 1 and June 15, totalling over $13 million.
Ninety-eight percent of those fines were issued in three provinces alone: Quebec issued 6,600 fines (77 percent of the total), Ontario gave out 2,853 fines (18 percent) and Nova Scotia issued 555 fines (3 percent).
Quebec has been the COVID-19 epicentre of Canada, recording nearly 55,000 confirmed cases and over 5,400 deaths to date—64 percent of the country’s deaths and more than half of all cases. In early April, provincial and Montreal police officers were given the power to issue $1,000 tickets to people violating a ban on indoor and outdoor gatherings.
In Ontario, Toronto Mayor John Tory warned residents in late March that they could face fines ranging from $750 to $5,000 for gathering in public parks.
Most of the fines issued in Quebec were for $1,546, the CCLA report found, while in Ontario most fines came out to $880.
Deshman said the CCLA did not have exact figures on the number of Black, Indigenous, or other racialized Canadians who received fines because many law enforcement agencies in Canada do not collect or publicly make available data on race.
“Despite large data gaps,” the report states, “arbitrary rules, increased enforcement powers, and significant fines” have disproportionately affected communities of colour. Earlier this week Vancouver’s mayor called for an end to carding, citing the overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and people of colour.
Deshman also said many people reported feeling unfairly targeted due to their race. “It is disturbing that the only reports we received where things really escalated in the interactions with bylaw officers were with Black Canadians,” she said.
She pointed to two separate incidents involving Black Canadians—in Ottawa and Toronto, respectively—who had the police called on them for alleged COVID-19 rule violations.
“In both cases, police were called for people who were just simply walking through their local park,” Deshman said.
Experts had warned early on that the enforcement of COVID-19 regulations would be uneven.
White people brazenly broke physical distancing rules in parks in New York and Toronto, Robyn Maynard and Andrea J. Ritchie wrote for VICE in April, “while Black youth playing alone in parks, workers, and families in public spaces face harassment and threats of law enforcement by white neighbours, and aggressive orders to disperse, tickets, pepper spray, and cuffs from officers that put them further at risk of becoming infected with the virus.”
Like Maynard and Ritchie, Deshman said harsh COVID-related law enforcement does not help keep Canadians safe, but instead pushes already marginalized people away from the support they need to keep themselves safe.
“For a person who is precariously housed, if you approach them with a police officer that hands them a fine of $1,500, that person is not going to be encouraged to access public health supports or testing,” Deshman said.
As provinces gradually reopen ahead of a potential second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic this fall, she said Canada should take a more education-based approach, rather than rely on punitive fines.
“We are, like everyone, expecting a second wave—and calling on governments to make sure that when that hits, their approach is about public health and not public order.”
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