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Hikers fail to practice social distancing as they gather at the top of popular hiking trail, Quarry Rock in Deep Cove in North Vancouver March 20, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The federal government will use tough enforcement measures, which include the threat of prison and massive fines, if Canadians don’t take self-isolation and social distancing seriously, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu says.

“We will use every measure in our toolbox at the federal level to ensure compliance,” she told a news conference on Sunday.

“For me, should we see a reluctance on behalf of the country to pull together, that would be a time when we would require additional measures.”

Over the weekend, social media displayed images of people gathering on beaches and in parks, restaurants and cafés. And while the provinces still have a patchwork of rules and approaches to enforcement, a trend to mandatory self-isolation and serious penalties is beginning to emerge, with Quebec banning all gatherings, indoor or outdoor, and Nova Scotia insisting on gatherings of no more than five people.

But the federal government’s approach is voluntary. Ottawa is advising Canadians who have returned from abroad to stay home for 14 days. It is not a legal requirement to follow that advice.

And not every traveller is following it, prompting some people to report their neighbours to police. “We’re getting a lot of calls,” says Carolle Dionne, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Provincial Police. People say: “ ‘I saw my neighbour who just came back from Mexico and they’re out and about.’ It’s not an offence, right? It’s a voluntary compliance we’re asking people to do.”

In Quebec, there have been reports of calls to the Sûreté du Québec about gatherings in private homes, prompting police to show up and ask people to disperse.

Ms. Hajdu, speaking directly to returning March-break travellers and snowbirds, said that if the self-isolation advice is not heeded, “the advice will not be just advice.”

The federal Quarantine Act, which applies to people entering or leaving Canada, contains fines of up to $1-million, and up to three years in jail. The federal Emergencies Act also contains wide-ranging powers and large penalties.

“When we say that you must stay at home for 14 days, that means you stay at home for 14 days,” Ms. Hajdu said. “That you do not stop for groceries. That you do not go visit your neighbours or your friends. That you rest in your house for 14 days. No exceptions.

"If you are returning to a household with other people who have not travelled then you rest in isolation from those other people. You stay in your room or in a basement or in an isolated area away from the other people in your family.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that greater federal enforcement would come only when all other measures had been exhausted.

“Please practice social distancing,” he said at a separate news conference. “That is absolutely essential to stop the spread of this virus.”

Provincial governments have begun cracking down. Saskatchewan has used its emergency-broadcast system to reach people on cellphones, telling returning travellers that they can be fined $2,000 if they don’t self-isolate for 14 days. In Quebec City, a woman who was infected with the virus was arrested while out walking.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil declared a state of emergency on Sunday. It bans gatherings of more than five people. Fines for such things as being at a beach or provincial park are up to $10,000 for individuals and $100,000 for corporations.

Mr. McNeil told a news conference that he was reacting to having seen and heard of large gatherings over the weekend, including those of young people playing street hockey, and of people ignoring law-enforcement officials.

“You can still go outside. You walk to exercise, not to socialize," he said. "Stay in your neighbourhood. Walk around the block or down the street. ... You can get groceries, you can go to the pharmacy, but do not do it in packs. Identify a single family member who can do those errands. And if you are an individual helping neighbours, please continue to do so.”

In Ontario, anyone obstructing officials who are enforcing pandemic social-distancing orders can be fined $1,000. Establishments such as restaurants that violate the province’s emergency law, which ordered them closed, can be fined $750, but if a corporation is fined, the maximum is $500,000 on conviction.

However, if it’s their “first knock at the door” from police, establishments will receive a warning, Ms. Dionne of the OPP said. She was not aware of any tickets handed out as of Sunday afternoon.

Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said the biggest challenge in coming days and weeks will be to maintain resolve on social distancing.

“It’s still too soon to say how much we have affected the trajectory of COVID-19 in Canada.”

He said that in the past five days, more than 54,000 tests have been done, bringing the total to 92,000. Speaking shortly after noon, he said Canada has 1,388 cases of COVID-19 and 19 deaths.

With a report from James Keller

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