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Chief of staff Dean French, seen here at left with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, sought daily reports on the number of stores shut down by police and the number of store owners charged.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s chief of staff took multiple steps to urge police forces across the province to launch raids on illegal marijuana storefronts in the weeks after cannabis was legalized, records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show.

Dean French sought daily reports on the number of store owners charged by police and the number of stores shut down, and he instructed staff to send letters to police service boards in an effort to instill “some urgency.”

Mr. French also instructed staff in an e-mail to discuss "concerns,” which he did not detail, about how justices of the peace, the judicial officials who rule on provincial offences, were treating marijuana-related charges.

Since the Ford government’s election in 2018, it has been criticized by opposition parties for not keeping a sufficient distance from policing. Recently, Mr. French was singled out by Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner for appearing to be “rooting” for the appointment, eventually abandoned, of Premier Ford’s friend, Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner, as the next commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.

In a statement in late April, the Premier’s Office said all of its requests for information about cannabis enforcement were “for the purpose of reviewing the strength of our legislation and policies.”

“Since Day One, the government’s priority has been protecting communities, keeping cannabis out of the hands of children and combatting the illegal market. A key part of that includes shutting down illegal dispensaries,” Simon Jefferies, a spokesman for Premier Ford, said in an e-mailed statement.

The democratic norm of walling off police investigations from the priorities of an elected government has been the subject of much analysis in Canada. The issue was at the heart of the three-year Ipperwash Inquiry, which examined the shooting death of an Indigenous protester in 1995 by an OPP officer amid pressure from the Premier’s Office to remove demonstrators from a provincial park.

The inquiry commissioner, Justice Sidney Linden, wrote in his 2006 report that, although it is necessary for police and government to exchange some information, “care must be taken to ensure that they do not become covert or veiled attempts to inappropriately direct police operations.”

Michael Spratt, an Ottawa criminal defence lawyer, called Mr. French’s efforts “disturbing” – especially, he said, because of his interest in the performance of justices of the peace.

“You have to remember these are judicial officers who can authorize intrusive police actions, like search warrants, and can sentence individuals to large monetary penalties and even deprive people of their liberty. We would never, like never, accept or condone politicians ... seeking to exercise influence in what judges do."

He added: “This is definitely across the line of what’s proper.”

The Globe and Mail’s account of Mr. French’s efforts to spur police enforcement is based on more than 100 pages of e-mails and government reports obtained through Freedom of Information, as well as interviews with participants in the events that unfolded after legalization.

‘Pictures of people in handcuffs’

On the first morning of legalization, Oct. 17, 2018, government staffers found themselves on a conference call with Mr. French, who wanted answers about why he hadn’t seen more robust enforcement of the Ontario government’s Cannabis Control Act.

The law, which came into effect that day, allowed police to charge anyone caught selling cannabis without a government licence. The law also called for large fines of up to $1-million against landlords found guilty of allowing illegal dispensaries to operate in their buildings.

"I expected to see pictures of people in handcuffs on CP24,” Mr. French said, according to people on the conference call. (That remark was first reported by the Toronto Star in October and confirmed to The Globe by sources to whom The Globe granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.)

At the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Mr. French’s words caused concern. Staffers were aware of the potential pitfalls of a minister appearing to tell police to arrest someone or a group of people.

Staff came to an agreement: No one would issue any directives to the police, sources said. But they concluded there was no harm in asking police leaders about their enforcement plans.

Some forces said storefronts were not a priority and that they were more concerned about the bigger issue: the suppliers behind the dispensaries. Other forces pointed to matters they considered more pressing, such as the opioid crisis, sources said.

In a follow-up conference call, Mr. French informed staff there would be a late afternoon meeting to explain the situation to Mr. Ford.

The meeting was scheduled for 4:45 p.m. in the Premier’s Office and the most powerful figures in Ontario’s government were at the table: Premier Ford; Finance Minister Vic Fedeli; Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney; and then-minister of community safety and correctional services Michael Tibollo.

Mr. French told the staffers that cabinet wanted to express its frustration, the sources said. Two sources present said Mr. French accused staff of having “embarrassed” the government.

Mr. Fedeli took over. The Finance Minister cited the many new “fines to collect” and pressed staff on why police weren’t more eager to take advantage of them.

Staff reiterated that it was not their role to tell the police who and how to investigate crimes, and reminded their political masters that the fines were not a fait accompli; the cases needed to first be prosecuted.

The Premier was largely silent throughout the meeting, except for a few comments, including a reiteration of his support for front-line police officers, the sources said.

‘We’re on this and will get you and the Premier what you need’

The following day, staff in the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services began what became a daily ritual – updating the Premier’s Office on the number of shops shut down and later, the number of people charged.

Al MacDermid, the minister’s then-director of policy, sent his first dispatch, explaining that law-enforcement officials were “spread out across the province checking on every single dispensary as we speak. I am assured that by [end of day] we will have a fully updated and comprehensive list of every single one that remains open.”

He forwarded the numbers to Mr. French, telling him: “We’re on this and will get you and the Premier what you need.”

The ministry reported that, over a period of 48 hours, there had been a 72-per-cent reduction in the illegal storefronts in the province’s four largest municipalities: Toronto, Ottawa, Peel Region and York Region.

However, the ministry’s reports show the drop may have had little to do with the threat of arrest. Staff explained that “many indicators are that dispensaries have closed in an attempt to get a licence to enter the legitimate market.”

Two days later, on Oct. 26, Mr. French was still not satisfied with the numbers – particularly from the City of Hamilton, which at that point had about 23 dispensaries.

The Premier’s Office wanted the ministry to send a letter about storefront enforcement to a number of police service boards – the civilian bodies that oversee municipal police forces. “The purpose of this letter is to provide some urgency, especially to the City of Hamilton,” Mr. French wrote in an e-mail to Ken Bednarek, then-chief of staff to Minister Tibollo.

These proposed letters were never sent, sources said.

In the same e-mail, Mr. French also said that Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders had expressed “concerns” with the “JP process as it relates to this file." JPs, or justices of the peace, are the judicial officers who preside over trials for provincial offences, such as the Cannabis Control Act, and also approve search warrants.

Toronto police spokesperson Allison Sparkes said Chief Saunders could not comment on his alleged concerns because they pertain “to legal matters.”

The next morning, a Saturday, Mr. French said he wanted more data: the number of store operators charged under the Cannabis Control Act, the locations of their stores and how many operators had been charged by municipal bylaw officers. And, again, he wanted more information on justices of the peace.

“Could you please provide feedback from law enforcement on how well the interaction with the JPs has been,” Mr. French wrote.

Asked about Mr. French’s e-mails, Justice of the Peace Jane Moffatt, secretary to the Association of Justices of the Peace of Ontario, said the group “will not make any comment.”

With reports from Colin Freeze and Laura Stone

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