Police have criminally charged a Toronto restaurateur who was keeping his business open in defiance of emergency orders that aim to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The decision by Toronto Police Service to lead Adam Skelly away from his restaurant in handcuffs was part of a broader police blitz across the city as pandemic restrictions stoke frustrations over shuttered businesses across Canada.
Mr. Skelly’s arrest on Thursday followed three days of his flouting rules ordering restaurants to close in Toronto for the next month. Ranks of police, including mounted police, formed a wall to keep anti-lockdown protesters away as they rallied around Mr. Skelly and his west-end restaurant.
To date, such enforcement has been rare. So rare that in “freedom rallies” being held across Canada, speakers have alleged that the state is bluffing about police being able to enforce emergency measures, given the country’s long-standing constitutional protections for individuals.
Legal experts, however, caution that Canadians are not living in typical times. “All these people waving the Charter around need to know what the Charter actually says,” says Kerri Froc, a law professor at the University of New Brunswick.
Prof. Froc was not speaking to a particular case. But as a point of law, she said, it is very likely that judges would backstop police efforts to arrest, fine or summon to court people who are alleged to have undermined measures imposed to contain COVID-19.
“We do have the right to make individual decisions ... but the question is: When do those rights start to infringe on the rights of other people?” Prof. Froc said. Constitutional law calculations are complex, so she simplified matters by referencing a well-known maxim from Star Trek.
“I always quote Spock for my students: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Ontario, which reported 1,478 new COVID cases on Thursday and 21 deaths, is shaping up to be a key legal battleground.
The charges laid against Mr. Skelly include attempting to obstruct police, mischief and trespassing. They follow a slow-burning saga that played out in public this week.
On Monday, he vowed on social media to reopen his restaurant in Toronto’s Etobicoke neighbourhood as the city entered a new stage of lockdown that banned in-restaurant dining.
His decision to open Tuesday and Wednesday prompted authorities to lay bylaw and public-health infractions against him, as well as to seize the establishment and change its locks. On Thursday, police let Mr. Skelly temporarily back into the building but allege he lingered, damaged the locks and accessed areas he was not supposed to.
A fracas broke out as Mr. Skelly was led away. Police charged another man with six counts of assaulting police.
Also on Thursday, Ontario MPP Randy Hillier tweeted he was ticketed by Toronto Police and served with a court summons for his alleged role in organizing a “No More Lockdowns” rally at Queen’s Park. This was an alleged violation of the Reopening Ontario Act, and the owner of a business in Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood was similarly ticketed for opening its doors in defiance of the new rules.
One day earlier, Mr. Hillier paid homage to Mr. Skelly in the legislature while vowing that he too would soon test the new laws. “I’m certain that these unlawful orders will be struck down by the courts,” he said.
Hamilton police have also pursued Reopening Ontario Act charges this month. On Nov. 13 an alleged “Hugs not Masks” organizer was accused of flouting the provincial emergency law. Then, on Nov. 23, a “Defund the Police” advocate was hit with the same charge.
In both cases, police say they issued prior warnings to the alleged protest organizers by telling them they would face $10,000 fines if they followed through with plans for public rallies they had advertised on social media. “The viability of prosecution will be decided by the courts,” said Hamilton police spokeswoman Jackie Penman.
Also, for the past three weeks, police in Aylmer, Ont., have been reviewing evidence related to a Nov. 7 protest against pandemic-fighting measures in which nearly 2,000 people converged on that community of 7,500.
Days before the Nov. 7 rally, the region’s medical officer had tried to wave people off for fear that the mostly out-of-town protesters could introduce coronavirus infections into Aylmer.
Police have no option but to strongly consider using their powers to buttress pandemic-fighting measures, Aylmer Police Chief Zvonko Horvat said. “You don’t want to make people martyrs in certain circumstances – but at the end of the day, you also have to take a look at the applicable laws.”