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Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair on Friday defended his move to seek what he called a "clarification" of police powers around the walled security zone that allows officers to demand anyone approaching the fence to identify themselves.

He dismissed criticism that the expanded police powers were "sweeping" or obtained secretly.

The Chief said police approached the province several months ago to have the security zone designated under an existing Ontario law that gives police expanded powers in places such as Union Station or police headquarters.

The government of Ontario quietly designated the entire G20 security zone as a "public work" nearly a month ago under a little-used act that vastly expands police arrest powers.

The move means anyone entering, or even approaching, a designated area can be searched without a warrant. All the streets inside the security fence in Toronto, where the summit is being hosted, have been temporarily designated under the Public Works Protection Act.

The act usually covers highways and canals used for the transmission of power and other public utilities, which are permanently designated. It also covers public provincial and municipal buildings. It gives "guards" of these sites the ability to demand a visitor's name and purpose for the visit and to refuse permission to enter, and arrest without warrant.

"This is not new powers. It is not sweeping powers. It's powers which are clearly defined in law," Chief Blair told a press conference at police headquarters. "... It was not a secret."

The temporary designation went into effect June 21, and will be rescinded the day after the summit ends, on June 28. Those found guilty under the act are subject to imprisonment for no longer than two months or a $500 fine.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Community Safety says the Ontario Public Works Protection Act dates back to 1939, and was simply extended to the G20 security perimeter for one week.

The same law gives police the power to ask anyone entering a courthouse for identification and to search any bags they have.

"It's a very clever way to expand police powers," said Nathalie Des Rosiers of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The group stated in a press release that it was "very concerned" about the implications of the measure and noted it "dramatically altered" the advice lawyers gave to protesters and the public.

The CCLA believes this is the first time an area has been designated temporarily.

The move was passed June 2 and only appeared on e-laws June 16. It won't be published in the regular paper format until July 3, after the summits are over.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Community Safety says the cabinet passed the law after a request from Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair.

With files from CP

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