Ontario has a history of racist police checks—is COVID-19 bringing them back?

Last week, the Ontario government announced a new COVID-19 enforcement protocol allowing police to randomly stop residents. The measure may have been rolled back, but for Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized residents, this kind of enforcement isn’t new.

In a highly anticipated announcement of additional COVID-19 restrictions on Friday, April 16, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced he was giving Ontario police the ability to conduct random stops and question people on where they lived, where they were going, and why they weren’t at home, as part of the province’s stay-at-home order.

Within hours, numerous organizations in the province released statements condemning the announcement for ignoring the impact increased policing would have on marginalized residents, specifically Black and Indigenous Ontarians.

In a public statement, the civil rights group Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Toronto spoke out against the new orders. The group alleged the order closely resembled carding, an outdated practice banned in Ontario involving police randomly stopping individuals.

“So-called ‘random’ stops are never random in an inherently racist, colonial, homophobic, and transphobic society,” the group wrote. “This newest scheme mandates the ongoing profiling and harassment of Black, Indigenous, racialized and LGBTQ2S folks, sex workers, and unhoused people.” 

By Saturday, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), a national nonprofit human rights organization focused on defending citizens’ freedoms, was preparing to legally challenge the new orders.

“This is formalized, legalized carding, and that’s unconstitutional,” a statement from the organization read.

Multiple police services from across the province also spoke out against the announcement, with different departments stating their officers wouldn’t be conducting random stops.

“[We] will continue to engage, educate and enforce, but we will not be doing random stops of people or cars,” wrote the Toronto Police Service (TPS) on Twitter.

In a statement emailed to The Pigeon, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) said it wasn’t made aware of these new changes until right before they were announced. 

“Our officials were consulted about potential changes to the emergency, but we did not know about these actual changes until we were briefed just prior to Friday’s announcement,” said a spokesperson for the association.

Ford’s new orders raise Canada-wide concern

Abby Deshman is the criminal justice program director for the CCLA. In an interview with The Pigeon, she recalled being immediately concerned about Ford’s attempt to increase police powers. 

“It gave police the authority to detain and question anybody without any suspicion that they had done anything wrong,” Deshman said. “It really was a complete abrogation of constitutional rights, so we were extremely concerned about the impact that would have on people living in Ontario, and in particular, [its] racialized members.”

The government of Ontario later backtracked and removed the ability for police to randomly stop individuals, saying “carding was never [the] intention.”

While officers would no longer be able to conduct random stops, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said in a statement that police would still be able to stop individuals they suspect of breaking COVID-19 guidelines laid out by the provincial government. 

“Officers will use discretion,” the OACP told The Pigeon. “For example, officers might ask an individual why they are walking toward a gathering in a park that clearly violates the number of people who can gather.”

Residents who don’t comply can be ticketed up to $750 in conformity with the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act

While many have expressed relief about the lifting of these regulations, the struggle for BIPOC and marginalized individuals isn’t over. Because police still have the authority to question individuals on their whereabouts, some Ontario activists say marginalized Ontarians can still be targeted at individual police officers’ discretion. 

Deshman said the national organization heard from a number of concerned Ontario residents who felt singled out by police enforcing COVID-19 orders.

She added that long before Ford’s announcements, her organization was aware the enforcement of COVID-19 regulations was affecting marginalized Canadians more than others.

“People who are racialized, people who have precarious housing, [and] those with mental health issues have much higher rates of police contact generally,” she explained. 

“There’s no reason to think that would be different when police or bylaw officers are enforcing COVID-19 related laws.”

Last week’s backlash shows that Ontario residents are wary of increased police powers when enforcing COVID-19 regulations. 

However, even before Ford attempted to introduce random stops, police were already investigating and enforcing stay-at-home orders in a way that disproportionately affected racialized Ontarians.

Ontario’s complicated history of carding

The practice of carding, also known as a ‘street check,’ was a popular practice for Canadian police departments, particularly from the late 1990s into the 2010s. It involved police arbitrarily stopping people outside and demanding they disclose personal information, like their name, date of birth, and address.

In some of Canada’s largest police forces, most notably in Vancouver, Halifax, and Montreal, so-called ‘random’ street checks were carried out against Black and Indigenous individuals at exponential rates.

In Halifax between 2005 and 2016, Black people were three times more likely than white people to be stopped for a street check by police. In 2017, 16 per cent of street checks conducted by Vancouver police involved people who were Indigenous, and 5 per cent involved Black people. 

As recently as 2019, Black and Indigenous people in Montreal were 4 to 5 times more likely to be stopped by police than white people. Researchers also found that 40 per cent of tickets issued between 2012 and 2019 in the city were given to homeless individuals. Of that, four per cent were Indigenous, despite Indigenous people representing less than one per cent of Montreal’s population.

In Ontario, cities like Toronto showed similar disparities. In March 2012, the Toronto Star published an investigation showing that from 2008 to 2011, the number of young Black and brown men carded by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) in certain neighbourhoods was greater than the actual number of young men of colour living in those areas.

Black residents accounted for 25 per cent of the reports filled out between 2008 and mid-2011, the Toronto Star reported.

On Nov. 18, 2013, the CCLA first raised official concerns about the practice in a Toronto Police Services board meeting.

“It is unlawful and unconstitutional, in our view, to stop, question, detain, and/or search a person […] if the interaction is not voluntary and in the absence of a proper investigative purpose,” the organization argued in its submission.

Street checks continued to be conducted by the TPS until the government of Ontario officially banned them in 2017, citing concerns about arbitrary stops and systemic racism.

However, even after the practise was officially banned, officers could still request information from individuals if they suspected them of a crime or if the stop was part of an ongoing investigation. At the time, local activist groups like Black Lives Matter Toronto argued the new rules were too broad, but little has changed in years since. 

Ontario advocacy groups are now arguing that the enforcement of COVID-19 measures once again shows the systemic racism present in Canadian policing.

COVID-19 has compounded existing police racism

Police and bylaw officers have been an integral part of Ontario’s COVID-19 enforcement framework since the pandemic began. Patrolling parks and other public areas, responding to reports of pandemic rule-breaking, and investigating businesses’ level of compliance with health orders are only some of the new responsibilities they’ve taken on.

Knowing the systemic racism that’s been shown to exist in Canadian police departments, organizations like the CCLA suspected police of biased COVID-19 regulation enforcement from the outset.

The pandemic itself affects marginalized communities more than others—and policing the pandemic has only made it worse. 

In a report released by the CCLA in June 2020, it was revealed that Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia had issued $13 million in fines that disproportionately affected people of colour. 

The organization believes these fines are allowing extended racial profiling and discrimination under the guise of COVID-19 protocols. 

CCLA cited one Black man’s encounter with the TPS from early in the pandemic, in which he and his partner alleged they were questioned on their reasoning for being in the park and followed for 25 minutes before being threatened with “violent arrest” and “jail on criminal charges.”

No more than half an hour later, the man saw the same officer let white people pass through the park unbothered. 

“When a public health approach is rejected in favour of a law enforcement approach, the individuals that feel the brunt of the punitive measures are those who are at most risk in the first place,” the report concluded.

Throughout the pandemic, activists, researchers, and journalists have raised growing concerns about the Ontario government’s choice to take an enforcement approach to the pandemic instead of an educational one.

Daniel Bailey is the founder of Ottawa Street Medics, a mutual aid organization with a focus on Ottawa’s marginalized and unhoused communities. In an interview with The Pigeon, he said Friday’s provincial orders compounded existing tensions between police and marginalized Ottawa residents.

“[Policing] already has affected people who are racialized and otherwise marginalized,” he explained. “They’re receiving tickets and they’re receiving complaints.”

Within hours of Ford’s announcement, Ottawa Street Medics began receiving reports of marginalized Ontarians being singled out by police in public spaces.

Bailey cited one instance where a man was allegedly harassed by police for playing with his daughter in a park.

“It just empowered police to stop people,” he said.

In an interview with Global News, Toronto-based journalist and activist Desmond Cole echoed many of the same concerns.

“This is an extension of what is always happening to Black people in this province, to Indigenous people, to Muslims, to other racialized groups,” he told Global. “All of these policing measures are a way of saying it’s not the government’s fault, it’s the individual’s fault.”

Experts say policing is not the answer

Recent research has shown that racism—especially the intersections of racism and health—is a separate pandemic entirely.

When Ford brought back a police tactic proven to be motivated by bias, it made it clear to Ontario experts that the provincial government isn’t prioritizing marginalized communities in its approach to public health.

Health organizations have long been calling for paid sick days and prioritizing COVID-19 hotspot residents and frontline workers for vaccines.

While the CCLA is celebrating its victory in urging the Ontario government to roll back increased police powers last week, Deshman said the work isn’t over.

“We continue to urge the government to focus on support for communities rather than punishment,” she said. “That is how we should be responding to the communities that need our help, not through increasing police powers and punitive measures”

Duaa Rizvi is currently a journalism student at Ryerson University. She also serves as the president of the school’s Journalism Course Union and the president of the Journalists for Human Rights’ Ryerson chapter. She aspires to have a career in broadcast journalism so she can show young girls there is space for women of colour in the newsroom.

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