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A person crosses Queen Street at O'Connor Street as foot and vehicular traffic remains low as people practice social distancing in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. There have been complaints in multiple cities of authorities being too stringent in their enforcement of new rules.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has criticized the City of Ottawa for overzealous ticketing to reinforce physical distancing rules, following a weekend blitz.

In an open letter to Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, CCLA executive director and general counsel Michael Bryant wrote Monday that police and bylaw officers should be educating, informing and then warning people before issuing tickets under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act for disobeying guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“The point is to achieve compliance with public health goals, not drive up your municipal revenues through a ticket blitz,” Mr. Bryant wrote.

There have been complaints in multiple cities of authorities being too stringent in their enforcement of new rules, including concerns about the ticketing of homeless individuals in Toronto and Hamilton. and a women in Montreal who faced fines after a crowd gathered to sing Happy Birthday to her. Though he knew of some of these complaints, Mr. Bryant said in a phone interview that the majority of complaints he heard were from Ottawa.

Mr. Bryant said he appreciates there are cases where people are flagrantly disobeying the guidelines, and agrees fines may be warranted in those cases. But "the point of emergency management today is public health, not public order, at least when public order means cracking down on heretofore harmless outdoor activity,” he wrote.

Anthony Di Monte, who oversees the City of Ottawa’s bylaw services, said the city received more than 500 complaints over the weekend and issued only 43 citations. Mayor Jim Watson added that the city did try to educate residents for two weeks, “but we had a bar that was open, we had a garage sale, we had kids’ birthday parties. ... And this has to stop.”

Ottawa City Councillor Shawn Menard agreed the blitz was potentially “a bit overboard.”

“There needs to be a recognition that everyone is just learning how to behave in this new world,” Mr. Menard said. “These are not criminals … these are people adjusting to a very, very odd time in our history.”

One resident, David Martinek, told the Globe he took his four-year-old son to an empty grassy patch near their home on Sunday afternoon. After kicking a ball around for 15 minutes, he noticed a bylaw officer pull up and begin writing down his license plate information. When Mr. Martinek approached the officer to clarify whether the space was even a public park, the officer abruptly told him “it’s a $700 fine,” and drove away. Mr. Martinek was not handled a physical ticket, but thought one might arrive in the mail. Asked about this case, the city said that it “cannot comment on this specific event without further information," but added that "charges with respect to parks-related offences are issued immediately in person.”

The Ministry of the Solicitor-General said in an e-mail Monday that specific rules around for physical-distancing guidelines are up to individual municipalities.

“Local enforcement personnel are encouraged to exercise discretion and use a graduated approach when enforcing provincial emergency orders,” spokesperson Brent Ross said.

Mr. Bryant said one of his main concerns is that people who receive these tickets have no recourse to fight them, given that the provincial offences courts are shut down. He also questions whether bylaw officers – who do not have the same training or oversight as police – are equipped to hand out such hefty fines.

“[It’s] a lot of power for which they’re not prepared,” he said. “That led me to be concerned that they might go enforcement crazy – and based on what’s happening in Ottawa, it appears that that’s exactly what’s happening.”

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