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Toronto Police and special constables patrol Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, Ontario, on May 24, 2020.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Toronto created a “climate of unfairness” in its parks in the early days of the pandemic, even as residents were desperately seeking fresh air and green space, the city ombudsman found.

In a report released Friday, ombudsman Susan Opler described numerous people being given fines of at least $880 after breaching parks-use rules – such as sitting at a picnic table – with which they were unfamiliar or believed to be unclear.

“All the complainants who spoke with us said that they feared returning to parks ... out of concern that they would be ticketed again for other rules they did not know about,” she wrote.

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In a number of cases, racialized people reported receiving stricter enforcement than other park users. One woman said she was ticketed after her special-needs child was jumping on and off a picnic table and the officer told her, “You people need to learn,” leaving her to wonder if he was talking about her race or her gender.

Ms. Opler’s report criticized the city for unclear communications around what parks uses were permitted and for inadequate training of the enforcement officers policing such public spaces.

Officers said they were instructed both to exercise judgment and practice zero tolerance. Although the city regularly said that enforcement was a last resort, one supervisor directed officers to “issue tickets where you can and … drive the message home.”

The use of public parks has been a flashpoint throughout the pandemic.

Detractors said many people out in the parks were behaving irresponsibly. Critics regularly posted pictures on social media of what they believed was unsafe crowding.

But supporters said parks got unfair attention because activities there were open to public view, unlike personal homes or workplaces. They argued parks were a vital outlet for the vast number of city residents without a private backyard.

The rules over parks use kept changing, at times creating complicated scenarios. At one point, people could sit on the grass in a park but could be fined for sitting at a picnic table or for “lingering” on a bench.

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Ms. Opler found that city communications blurred the line between public-health advice and legal requirement, leaving the public to parse what they were allowed to do.

Canadian Civil Liberties Association criminal justice program director Abby Deshman said on Friday that it was “incredibly unfair to put the burden on individuals to try to figure out … what the actual law is,” noting that the report substantiated numerous concerns raised by the CCLA since early 2020.

The group is calling for public-space fines related to the pandemic to be reimbursed and any continuing prosecutions to be halted.

“We were contacted by dozens and dozens of people who were given … fines for simply trying to follow the rules, doing their best under very stressful, very difficult circumstances,” Ms. Deshman said.

City manager Chris Murray, in a response letter included in the report, acknowledged its findings and pledged to implement its recommendations.

“Staff faced significant challenges communicating and enforcing the numerous and changing COVID regulations and public-health guidelines in 2020,” he wrote. “Our priority … was to stop the spread of the virus in the community and to save lives.”

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Mayor John Tory has defended pandemic restrictions and enforcement powers broadly as a necessary trade-off between individual rights and public-health protections. Those unhappy with the city’s approach, he said in April, 2020, could go to court.

On Friday, Mr. Tory said in a statement that “it was a challenge to maintain a balanced and effective approach to enforcement given changing circumstances, differing opinions and limited resources” spread across the city’s 1,500 parks.

Ms. Opler acknowledged that municipal staff were often working with quickly evolving provincial restrictions, but said the city’s communications around the issue were confusing.

She was also scathingly critical of some of the city’s missteps.

In one incident, a Black man was ticketed while walking in High Park with his white partner. He believed he had been racially profiled, a complaint substantiated by the city’s human rights office. The man’s ticket was withdrawn, but Ms. Opler’s report noted that the city did not publicize the incident or the findings of the human rights investigation.

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