The arrival of autumn has brought along the predicted rebound of coronavirus infections, at least in Quebec and Ontario.
On Friday, Ontario set a record for the number of new cases in one day and Quebec reported 1,000 new cases for the first time during the second wave. My colleague Dan Bilefsky and I wrote this week about the unwelcome resurgence and the return of tight restrictions in many parts of Quebec.
Since our article appeared, François Legault, the premier of Quebec, announced that the police now have the power to issue fines of 1,000 Canadian dollars to people violating measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus in the areas of the province that have been declared red zones. Officers can also call in a request for a warrant to enter the homes of people who have ignored restrictions by having visitors, and those breaking the rules can be fined.
And in Ontario, the province said on Friday that social bubbles had been put on hold and that people were asked to limit close contact to members of their households.
How the pandemic affects civil liberties also arose this week. Two groups, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Constitution Foundation, separately reported that the police had misused access to a database of Ontario residents who had tested positive for the coronavirus, making 95,000 searches many of which were not related to any obvious active calls. A court cut off the access of the police to that information in July.
Since March, Canadians have generally accepted a host of rules, even though there have been sporadic protests against them.
The Supreme Court in Newfoundland has ruled on that province’s closing of its borders with the rest of Canada. It agreed with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that the measures violate the section of the charter that allows Canadians to travel freely across the country. But the court also found that the violation was reasonable and justified because of the public health benefits it brings.
Similarly, contact tracing raises privacy issues.
The Royal Society of Canada, the country’s national academy which honors academic achievement and promotes research, recently published a paper that studied the potential conflicts between civil liberties and controlling the pandemic. It’s part of a series of Covid-19 related research papers by some of Canada’s top scholars. Although it’s written in academic language, it’s still worth a read.
Its takeaway is this: Individual rights don’t trump public health, but governments must present a good reason and evidence for their restrictions and narrowly tailor them.
The paper says that the charter’s “guarantee of life, liberty and security of the person does not protect against what might be called ‘trivial’ intrusions on liberty.” Given that, the paper notes, “it is not clear that laws requiring masking engage Charter rights at all.”
At the same time, the paper argues, the enforcement of mandatory mask laws could become a threat to civil liberties if the police used them as “pretext for harassment of marginalized populations and needless escalations of force.”
In the early summer, the border closings brought stigma to a doctor in New Brunswick who had traveled to Montreal to pick up his 4-year-old daughter there. He was also charged with breaking emergency measures laws in August. He believes racism played a role in his public denunciation and shaming.
If more limits appear as the second wave grows, the public’s acceptance of intrusions into civil rights may be tested.