“We’re aware there will be confrontations,” said Pamela Scharfe, a manager with Toronto Public Health, in an interview with this newspaper back in 1997. “We’re suggesting our staff back away from violent confrontations. We have asked police to be ready to help.”
Ms. Scharfe was speaking about the implementation of a municipal bylaw that banned cigarette smoking in all Toronto bars and restaurants, with the exception of enclosed sections. Smokers who defied the bylaw would face fines of up to $5,000, and businesses – which were mostly responsible for enforcing the bylaw – could be penalized for failing to tell customers about the new regulation.
Dr. David McKeown, who was then Toronto’s medical officer of health, told The Globe at the time that he expected to see a “flurry of protests from a minority of people” as the city adapted to the change. “But the majority of people are supportive,” he added.
In the end, protesters were successful in getting the city to soften the bylaw to allow smoking in designated sections, instead of only in fully enclosed, separate spaces. But that didn’t satisfy many lingering, unanswered questions about how the city would actually implement the restrictions: How could the law be enforced evenly? Why put the onus on businesses? What happens when patrons flatly refuse to butt out? One columnist who opposed the bylaw framed the issue of smoking indoors as one fundamentally about individual choice. “In the case of second-hand smoke,” he wrote in a column in The Globe at the time, “the health hazard claim is spurious.”
Decades later, the debates we are now having about how to enforce mandatory mask orders across the country are remarkably similar in tone and structure to the anti-smoking bylaw debates of the 90s and early 2000s. While this new measure is very different – a temporary order in some jurisdictions that asks that people wear masks indoors in response to a global pandemic – the reaction in Canada and elsewhere has been largely the same.
We’re already seeing the predictable confrontations. This past weekend, a video showed Montreal police attempting to pin a man who refused to leave a Tim Hortons restaurant after being asked to put on a mask. Earlier this month, another man was arrested and charged with causing a disturbance after he allegedly went off on a racist tirade when he was asked to wear a mask in a Mississauga supermarket. And a 73-year-old man from Minden, Ont., was fatally shot by police last week after he got into a confrontation with grocery store staff about their mask policy, and then had some sort of altercation with police outside of his home. The province’s Special Investigations Unit is now looking into what happened.
Beyond these individual, sometimes tragic confrontations, we’re also seeing collective protests crop up across Canada – a flurry from a minority of people, to borrow the words of Dr. McKeown from 1997, even though the majority of Canadians actually support mandatory mask policies.
Those who oppose the mask ordinances cite their personal freedoms and autonomy, rejecting what they see as the state’s unjustified intrusion into the lives of its citizens. A group called the Victoria “Freedom of Choice Coalition,” created in opposition to the city’s 1999 bylaw prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants, used similar refrains in opposition to the municipal government at the time. And just as anti-maskers today claim that their choices do not affect anyone else, so too did critics of past anti-smoking bylaws, who insisted that their decision to smoke indoors was essentially of no one else’s concern. The science about second-hand smoke was “spurious,” after all.
Yet more than 20 years on, there are still few satisfactory answers about how to implement a regulatory change that demands a rather dramatic shift in personal behaviour. New bylaws can’t really be enforced in any sort of comprehensive, equitable way, since public-health authorities lack the resources for broad on-the-ground oversight. The onus has to be on businesses because municipalities (or, in the case of Quebec, the province) really don’t have much choice.
Indeed, it’s inevitable there will be obstacles to implementation – confrontations, protests, irate customers and hastily assembled activist groups – but none renders the new laws inherently unjust or unworthy. Instead, they should be seen as the predictable growing pains of any society trying to adjust to a new normal. It’s likely that as our behaviour naturally evolves, we’ll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. For the sake of tackling this pandemic, however, let’s hope it doesn’t take us 23 years to get there.
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