Our jails are a petri dish for the rapid spread of coronavirus. Let’s release non-violent inmates

March 16, 2020

How much freedom are we willing to give up, and for how long?

A month ago, it all would have been unthinkable. Government-mandated physical distancing rules. Expanded police powers. Big Brother snitch lines. Blockades at provincial borders. It boggles the mind that fundamental civil rights can so quickly evaporate.

It’s not all bad news… episode 12

It’s not controversial that we must give up some freedom in the fight against COVID-19. This is the right thing to do for community health and safety. And the public is on side. A recent Ipsos poll found that 95 per ent of Canadians agree that physical distancing is an effective tool to limit the spread of COVID-19 and an EKOS survey found 84 per cent of Ottawa residents have changed their social behaviour in response to COVID-19.

But we must be careful when we surrender our rights not to rush headlong into an Orwellian dystopia.

And make no mistake, we are talking about fundamental civil liberties: the right to move freely; the right to associate; and the right to be free from unwarranted detention.

Under Ontario’s Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, law enforcement can issue tickets to gatherings of five or more people in public or private spaces and to anyone using park facilities. These provincial orders are backed up by fines as high at $100,000 and the possibility of a year in jail.

Some cities have gone even farther. In Toronto, where police have vowed a “zero tolerance” policy, any two people who don’t live together and are found within two metres of each other will be subject to prosecution and a fine of up to $5,000.

In Quebec things are even darker, where police are stopping motorists and demanding to see their papers. The “bubble within the bubble” is a disturbing bit of state overreach ripe for abuse. A police state where a simple trip between municipalities involves police detention and questioning stinks of unconstitutionality. It also risks turning honest citizens who are trying their best to comply with stay-at-home orders against the very measures we all must embrace.

We all know we should stay home. “Enough is enough. Go home and stay home,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But the prime minister, unlike you and me, was able to cross the provincial border to see his family at the cottage over the long weekend. A steady paycheque, large house and access to outdoor space make it much easier to stay home. It is much harder for those not living in fancy Rockcliffe estates or sprawling suburban monster homes.

For some, staying at home is simply not an option. For many essential workers, an expansive category that includes thousands of minimum-wage and working-class individuals, staying home means losing their home. And urban populations, particularly apartment dwellers, who can’t stretch their legs in a large backyard or play with their kids at their double-garage basketball hoop, suffer disproportionately under the new COVID-19 reality.

There have already been mind-boggling examples of the state inappropriately flexing its enforcement muscles. Last week in Ottawa, two friends sitting on opposite ends of park bench were fined, so was a man who was walking his dog alone in a park and so was a young Syrian father who let his kids play in an empty playground.

These new restrictive laws, combined with the mule-headed reluctance of Mayor Jim Watson to embrace even small steps like partially closing roads to give pedestrians more space, is a recipe for an erosion of public confidence in our institutions. And just this week Ottawa Public Health scolded neighbours for talking to each other from their porches – then immediately walked back its baffling worry that these safe interactions would turn into a “backyard party.”

We all need to be in the fight against COVID-19 for the long haul. But when rules become absurd, incomprehensible and overly oppressive, they endanger the legitimacy of our pandemic response and create danger that the public will tune out.

The reality is that we cannot police our way out of this pandemic, nor should we.

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