Confinement in Canada: Police Officers with Increased Powers and “Sentinel” Citizens

Different police forces across the country are getting increased powers, more flexibility in work organization and even the help of “sentinel” citizens as governments tighten their mandatory containment directives to stop the spread of COVID-19. And restrict certain individual freedoms.
Quebec and Ontario on Monday ordered the closure of all businesses classified as “non-essential”, while Prince Edward Island and the City of Vancouver imposed new sanctions on offenders. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the government is encouraging citizens to report citizens or businesses suspected of violating directives from public health authorities.

The City of Montreal Police Service began operating in a “state of emergency” mode Monday morning. The spokesperson André Durocher explained that this recourse, provided for in the collective agreement, allows in particular the staff to make work police officers until 12 hours per shift and to reassign the personnel of other services to patrol in the streets of Montreal.

In Quebec, spokeswoman Sandra Dion said that municipal police have been intervening since the weekend to disperse “illegal” rallies inside and outside and to force stubborn businesses to close. According to Ms. Dion, the police intervened most often after receiving a citizen information. And the offenders have been collaborating so far, she said.

The Premier of Quebec, François Legault, hoped Monday to be able to maintain the same approach and count on the good will of the citizens. But he also recalled that the state of health emergency decreed by his government on March 14 grants police forces “all kinds of powers” to apply the directives of the authorities.

Emergency Measures Act?

Legault said he believed Tuesday that it would be “premature” for the federal government to use the Emergency Measures Act, which would allow Ottawa to override certain provincial powers. This law, adopted in 1988, but never invoked since, replaces the War Measures Act, applied in Quebec 50 years ago during the October crisis.

Guy Ryan, a retired Montreal police officer who worked in “state of emergency” mode during the 1998 ice storm, believes local authorities currently have enough power to enforce the containment measures. On the other hand, the federal law would “crush” all the authority that Quebec has conferred on its police forces.

For the moment, the fact that citizens collaborate extensively with the police and help them apply the new, stricter directives, as in Quebec, shows how much people are afraid, believes Amy Swiffen, professor of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal. “Yes, (COVID-19) poses a threat to public health, but when people feel threatened (…) they rally around a strong leader and support really extreme measures because it reassures them. ”

However, Professor Swiffen reminds us that if recent government measures in the area of ​​public health seem to be based on solid scientific data, we must remain vigilant to ensure that political decisions continue to be based on science. And it will probably not be known until after the crisis whether the police have gained too much power or whether governments have gone too far, she said.

“In an ideal world, the police are fair and reasonable in their practices, and the government is impartial, based on evidence and throws ballast when the time comes,” said the sociologist. “But they are human beings.”

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