TORONTO — A government changes a law to allow police to arrest people without probable cause. It does so without any legislative debate. Then it keeps the change a virtual secret, until someone is arrested under those new powers.
The Soviet Union circa 1950? Nope. Try Canada, June 2010.
Civil liberties advocates and political activists are up in arms after it emerged Friday that police in Toronto have been given special powers to arrest anyone near the site of the G20 summit if they fail to identify themselves.
What’s more, the government of the province of Ontario, which green-lit the new powers, didn’t tell anyone about it until after someone was arrested under the new powers.
Thirty-one-year-old Dave Vasey was arrested near the G20 perimeter security fence in downtown Toronto Thursday afternoon after refusing to identify himself to a police officer.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The officer told me, Ã¢â‚¬ËœI am going to have to place you under arrest if you donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t show your identification,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ and I replied Ã¢â‚¬ËœIÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not comfortable with that,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬Â Vasey said, as quoted at the Toronto Star.
With Vasey’s arrest, it emerged that Ontario secretly changed its Public Works Protection Act to allow police officers unprecedented powers of arrest. That law allowed police to arrest people if they fail to identify themselves to a police officer when inside a government building or near a “public works” project. It has now been expanded to include the area around the G20 summit, meaning a significant portion of downtown Toronto.
The Toronto Star reports:
The regulation kicked in Monday and will expire June 28, the day after the summit ends. While the new regulation appeared without notice on the provinceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s e-Laws online database last week, it wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be officially published in The Ontario Gazette until July 3 Ã¢â‚¬â€ one week after the regulation expires.
According to the new regulation, Ã¢â‚¬Å“guardsÃ¢â‚¬Â appointed under the act can arrest anyone who, in specific areas, comes within five metres of the security zone.
Within those areas, police can demand identification from anyone coming within five metres of the fence perimeter and search them. If they refuse, they face arrest. Anyone convicted under the regulation could also face up to two months in jail or a $500 maximum fine.
Toronto Chief of Police Bill Blair, who reportedly requested the arrest powers, denied Friday that it had been done in secret.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t changed the rules,” he said, as quoted at the National Post. “We have put up a fence. We have told people very very clearly that we will not be allowing the public access into that area. … Our authority comes primarily comes from common law, but also by the regulation that has been passed by the province of Ontario.”
But the assertion that the change wasn’t secret was immediately challenged by reporters covering the G20 summit.
“Funny,” writes Adam Radwanski at the Globe and Mail, “I asked two different spokespeople for the integrated G20 police unit Ã¢â‚¬â€ at least one of whom was from the Toronto force Ã¢â‚¬â€ about the legal justification for the measures being taken around the perimeter. Neither breathed a word about anything about the Public Works Protection Act, let alone any recent cabinet decisions that affected it.”
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just unbelievable you would have this kind of abuse of power where the cabinet can create this offense without having it debated in the legislature,Ã¢â‚¬Â Vasey’s lawyer, Howard Morton, told the Star.
Activist groups say that keeping the new police powers a secret means they have been giving G20 protesters inaccurate advice about how to deal with police confrontations. Vasey himself refused to show identification to police because he was following the advice laid out by the Toronto Community Mobilization Network, which is organizing some G20 protest activities.
“This act values public property over the freedom of people and prevents community members from walking freely through the streets without questioning from authorities,” the group said on its Web site Friday. “We will not be made examples of, but rather, we will publicly denounce oppressive activities of the state and highlight the solidarity in our communities.”
Vasey is scheduled to appear in court on July 28.