‘We need to draw the line somewhere’: Anti-lockdown protests raise questions of safety, police handling

It came at the end of the campaign stop in London, Ont., as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was stepping onto his bus. From within a group of protesters came a fistful of small rocks, pelting Trudeau and others nearby.

The Monday night incident came after recent weeks saw desperate restaurant owners issue pleas for help as anti-vaccination demonstrators screamed at their patrons — and after health care staff and patients were confronted with maskless throngs as they entered hospitals, prompting safety concerns and demoralizing burnt-out medical workers.

Amid a fourth wave of COVID-19, the rise of vaccine and mask mandates and a federal election campaign, protests against public health measures that began at the outset of the pandemic are now reaching an alarming crescendo across Canada, growing in size, frequency and aggression.

The escalation from hurled insults to projectiles is prompting mounting concerns about public safety, and putting a spotlight on police handling of demonstrations — raising questions about what crosses the line between the charter-enshrined protest rights and criminal acts.

Even after Canada’s prime minister was struck with gravel — no charges have been laid, though London police have opened an investigation — it’s been rare to see officers step in with tickets or handcuffs, prompting criticism of leniency and calls for action.

“We need to draw the line somewhere with respect to what we allow protesters and demonstrators to do,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto criminologist whose expertise includes policing and protest.

Speaking to reporters at a campaign stop in Montreal Tuesday, Trudeau, who was not hurt on Monday, said his campaign has to “adjust” to ensure both supporters and protesters are safe at his events. But he said Canadian political leaders and candidates must be able to continue to meet face-to-face with those they represent.

“As we see little pockets of people lashing out in ways that remind us of horrific events like the storming of the (U.S.) Capitol, Canadians need to know that their leaders, that their country is standing firm to not let that happen,” Trudeau said.

Toronto police faced criticism last week for their handling of protesters who shouted anti-vaccination slogans and took over “hospital row” at University Avenue and College Street, near Toronto General and Mt. Sinai Hospitals and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

Among the criticisms was officers there were unable to contain and manage demonstrators — a crucial part of policing a protest, said Julius Haag, a University of Toronto criminologist who researches policing.

“The police have an important role in ensuring that these types of actions don’t restrain people from accessing key facilities such as hospitals, and ensuring that those protests remain non-violent — you know we’ve seen them do it in the past,” Haag said.

In a statement Tuesday, Toronto police spokesperson Connie Osborne said officers were on-site during the hospital protest and had no reports of assaults or of people blocking ambulances. If an ambulance was blocked, “officers would move people and make arrests for obstruction — preserving life is our priority.”

In a joint statement, the Canadian Medical Association and the Ontario Medical Association spoke out against “bullying” and harassment of staff, and about anti-vaccine protests that are “precluding access to much-needed health care settings and demoralizing health-care workers.”

In general, officers will try to engage with all groups of protesters and remind them of the expected behaviour, Osborne said; if crimes are committed, officers can make arrests at the time or after the event “where warranted.”

“As you know, everyone has the lawful right to peacefully protest and everyone also has the right to go about their lives without fear of harassment,” Osborne said.

Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are charter-protected rights in Canada but there are reasonable limits, said Cara Faith Zwibel, a lawyer and director of Fundamental Freedoms Program with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).

Zwibel said as civil libertarians the CCLA is “not keen” to say police should be more reactive in protests and as “upsetting as it must be” for health care workers to see anti-vaccination protestors outside of hospitals, they’re allowed to be there if they are not hindering access; the point of a protest is to “disrupt, and to sort of raise issues that are not being raised.”

But it’s peaceful protest that’s charter protected — “certainly the police have powers to arrest people for breaches of the peace, acts of vandalism or violence, intimidation or harassment,” Zwibel added.

How police employ discretion in a protest — and against whom — can carry weight, said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. If there’s a perception officers are turning a blind eye to behaviour that’s criminal, such as harassment or mischief, it can “embolden” protestors.

“They think that the police have their backs,” Balgord said in an interview. “When they feel like that, they go and assault people because they feel like there’s not going to be consequences for their actions, and we see that time and time again.”

Owusu-Bempah said differences in how officers police protests — and where use of force is deployed — have raised questions particularly in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack in Washington.

“The rioters on Capitol Hill, and many of the anti-vaxxers I think, look much more like the police than do people who are engaged in anti-racism, Black Lives Matter protests,” he said.

Protesters taking to Canadian streets and hitting the campaign trails have varied grievances, including an opposition to public health measures like lockdowns and masks, skepticism or outright rejection of vaccines and vaccine mandates, and anger directed at political leaders who have attempted to manage Canada through the pandemic.

They appear to be motivated less by a political cause than a common set of anti-government and anti-institutional beliefs, according to extremism researcher Amarnath Amarasignam. And COVID-19 has created a “common playground” for groups with darker motives — white nationalism, far-right extremism and “sovereign citizen” adherents.

“COVID and the anti-lockdown, anti-quarantine movement created an interesting arena … for all of these groups to find common cause,” Amarasignam, who teaches at Queen’s University, said in an interview.

Trudeau noted that the protests did not seem to be motivated by partisanship — there were no political signs wielded by protesters who greeted his campaign in the last weeks. But that changed Monday evening, when the group in London featured a number of supporters of the People’s Party of Canada — Maxime Bernier’s fringe right-wing political party.

Bernier has attempted to harness the energy of anti-lockdown and anti-COVID protests, claiming to stand up for personal freedom in the face of a global pandemic. He has repeatedly referred to Trudeau as a “tyrant” and “psychopath” through his social media accounts, posting a video on Twitter Monday with the comment “when tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty.”

In a statement, Bernier condemned the “idiot” who “threw pebbles at Mr. Trudeau” in London. “Words are our weapons. But physical violence is ALWAYS wrong,” Bernier wrote on Twitter.

Asked if Bernier felt that referring to Trudeau as a tyrant or calling for a “revolution” is inflaming or encouraging the aggressive protests, a spokesperson for Bernier refused to answer the question.

“You mean to say it’s YOUR OPINION that our campaign appears to be encouraging this type of activity, right? We don’t care about the opinion of leftist activists masquerading as journalists,” wrote Martin Masse, a longtime Bernier aid, in a statement to the Star.

Despite the aggressive protests, Trudeau has continued to hold campaign events in the open. And certain upcoming events — like this week’s official leaders’ debates in Gatineau — are difficult to keep from protesters’ attention.

In a statement, the Gatineau police said that they’re working with the RCMP and other “relevant authorities” to secure the event, scheduled to take place Wednesday and Thursday night at the Canadian Museum of History.

“Street closures as well as changes to the usual signage are to be expected. The (Gatineau police service) officers will be deployed in sufficient numbers to adequately respond to the situation in the area,” wrote spokesperson Cynthia Lauzon in a statement to the Star.

“Police will respect individuals’ rights to freedom of expression and demonstration in a lawful manner. In the event of any unlawful acts, including public order issues, police will respond in an appropriate and professional manner in accordance with the law,” the RCMP said.

Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis