TORONTO — Martial law ruled Toronto during the G20 summit after Ontario secretly gave police wartime powers, resulting in a mass violation of civil rights unprecedented in Canada, the provincial watchdog said Tuesday.
The deliberate misinformation surrounding a revamped Second World War regulation led people to wrongly believe police had the power to demand identification and detain anyone coming within five metres of the G20 security fence.
The law, in fact, applied only to people entering the zone.
Still, it should have been dubbed the five-kilometre rule given police were stopping and searching people far from the fences in the downtown core, ombudsman Andre Marin said in releasing the results of his probe into the controversial law.
The more than 1,000 arrests and illegal detention of hundreds, or even thousands, of others during the June summit was a “mass violation of civil rights,” said Marin.
“For the citizens of Toronto, the days up to and including the weekend of the G20 will live in infamy as a time period where martial law set in the city of Toronto, leading to the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.”
Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau went to Parliament to hold a debate before enacting the War Measures Act in the early 1970s, but Ontario went out of its way to keep the new law on police powers quiet, said Marin.
“The government planned and premeditated not to communicate what authority it was relying on to execute searches and arbitrarily detain citizens, and that in my view is problematic,” he said.
It was a “likely illegal regulation” that was used to give police “extravagant” powers, Marin added. Police, he added, compounded matters with deliberate miscommunication about the reach of their new powers.
“Apart from insiders in the government of Ontario, only members of the Toronto Police Service knew that the rules of the game had changed, and they were the ones holding the ‘go directly to jail’ cards,” he wrote in his report, Caught in the Act.
“Many of those stopped and questioned by police under the Public Works Protection Act were involved in demonstrations, but many others were simply Torontonians going about the activities of their daily lives.”
The 1939 act, designed to protect public buildings during war, was used “to intimidate and arrest people who had done no harm.”
“It’s a civil rights land mine from World War Two,” Marin said of the act used to give police extra powers.
“There was a cascade effect of state mischief that resulted in hundreds of detentions.”
Premier Dalton McGuinty refused to comment Tuesday, saying he hadn’t read Marin’s report, but Community Safety Minister Jim Bradley admitted the government should have done a better job of communicating the changes to the law.
“It is clear to me that we should have communicated the regulation much more directly, clearly and promptly,” said Bradley.
Bradley refused to concede the Liberals had acted in secret and also declined to offer an apology for abusing people’s civil rights.
Marin laughed at the government’s admission that it could have done a better job communicating the changes in the law.
“Darn right you could have done better,” he said.
“There was a premeditated, conscious decision not to announce the existence of the regulation or the reviving of this wartime act, this relic. The government essentially poked a hibernating bear, woke it up, and they didn’t want the public to know.”
Marin said he was “bewildered” when Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair referred to a five-metre rule, which did not exist. Blair refused to co-operate with the ombudsman’s investigation and also declined to have his officers answer Marin’s questions.
The original regulation was passed after Canada declared war on Germany. Its use during the G20 “was of dubious legality and no utility,” Marin wrote.
“It was opportunistic and inappropriate to use a war measure that allows extravagant police authority to arrest and search people in the name of public works,” he wrote.
“Here, in 2010, is the province of Ontario conferring wartime powers on police officers in peacetime.”
The decision by the Liberal cabinet should not have been kept shrouded in secrecy, added Marin.
The ombudsman also blasted the Ministry of Community Safety for failing to ensure that police were adequately trained on the regulation, which he said contributed to the “chaos and confusion” on city streets during the summit.
“It may have been the best kept secret in Ontario’s legislative history,” said Marin. “By changing the rules of the game without real notice, (it) acted as a trap for the responsible.”
Marin launched a 90-day probe after getting 167 complaints about the law.
The New Democrats said Marin’s investigation was limited in scope and there should be a full public inquiry.
However, the Opposition said there was no need for an inquiry if McGuinty would answer all the questions about the law and fire former Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci.
“We actually had a premier of the province of Ontario and a minister of the Crown that brought forward an illegal and unconstitutional law,” said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
“They didn’t have the guts to put it out in public and say why they thought it was necessary and conspired to keep it buried away from the public for weeks.”