Skip to main content
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Shoppers wear masks at a mall on the third day of Quebec's mandatory mask order for all indoor public spaces on July 20, 2020 in Laval, Que.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

“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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies