The legality of G20 police cordons in Toronto

Toronto is a changed city this weekend. Various police forces have cordoned off a big part of downtown searching and checking IDs of those wishing to enter. We in Canada are not used to ID checks and car searches on public streets. Canadians are usually free to walk in public areas, and the police cannot stop people and force them to show ID or even answer questions without a good reason to suspect them of a crime. When a big part of a crowded and bustling city becomes off limits, many people will probably wonder if G20 is worth it. Many lawyers will perhaps ask a different question: does the police have the power to cordon off downtown Toronto. The answer is yes.

The simplest and shortest explanation is in s. 10.1(2) of the Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act (FMIOA), which charges the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) with the security of “intergovernmental conferences” in Canada. Section 10.1(2) of the act expressly grants the RCMP the power “to take appropriate measures, including controlling, limiting or prohibiting access to any area to the extent and in a manner that is reasonable in the circumstances.” The Integrated Security Unit that includes the RCMP is responsible for securing G8/G20 events. The RCMP’s role is “the Summit site and surrounding areas,” so presumably it is the RCMP that has cordoned off a part of downtown Toronto. It has a statutory power to do so.

An Act of Parliament grants the RCMP this power to cordon off streets. That ends the real-life analysis. But imagine there was no law like that or imagine the Toronto Police tried to cordon off a few blocks in Toronto. Would the police still have the cordon-off power? This is an interesting theoretical question because many police powers do not come from statute, and it’s important to know when the police exceed their authority. The FMIOA doesn’t apply to Toronto police, and Ontario’s Police Services Act and City of Toronto Act don’t grant the cordon-off power to the Toronto Police Service. (The FMIOA presumably allows the federal government to delegate RCMP’s cordon-off power to other police services (s. 10.1(4)), but let’s pretend it’s not the case.)

In Ontario, police powers come not only from statute (express acts of the provincial legislature or the federal parliament) but also from common law (courts’ judgements). Police existed before any act of parliament incorporated it, and during that period courts had the final word on police powers. When legislatures recognized police powers under statute, sometimes they continued police powers that existed at common law. Under s. 42(3) of the Police Services Act, “[a] police officer has the powers and duties ascribed to a constable at common law.” This provision allows the courts to continue to adjudicate police powers not expressly granted by the legislature.

When Canadian courts resolve a dispute in which a complainant questions the existence of a police power, they apply the Waterfield test, named after an English case that explained police powers at common law (also known as the ancillary police powers). A court applying this test would see first if a police action interfered with personal liberty or property without statutory authority. If yes, the court would see if “(a) such conduct falls within the general scope of any duty imposed by statute or recognised at common law and (b) whether such conduct, albeit within the general scope of such a duty, involved an unjustifiable use of powers associated with the duty.” (R. v. Waterfield [1963] 3 All E.R. 659 (C.C.A.) at 661). Basically, at common law the police can do anything necessary to discharge their lawful duties as long as the use of their powers is justified.

Judicial precedents guide us as to what is justified. For example, in Knowlton v. R., a 1975 Supreme Court decision, the court held that cordoning off the sidewalk in front of a hotel hosting a foreign leader is justified. A photographer who tried to break through the cordon was arrested and charged with obstruction of police. Part of the reason for closing the sidewalk was a previous assault on this foreign leader in another Canadian town. This and the fact that everyone knew about the widely publicized assault helped the court conclude that the cordoning off was justified even if the police didn’t explain their legal authority to the photographer. The court held that the photographer should have known the police had a duty to protect the foreign dignitary in these circumstances. The photographer also had a chance to get his pass but missed it.

I haven’t heard of a court case that looked at something on the scale of G20 events in Toronto, but Knowlton gives us some idea what a court would say. It would emphasize the history of violence at such events and the massive publicity reaching probably every resident of Canada. Closing off the downtown core is not the same as blocking a sidewalk but the number of dignitaries is many times higher and it’s common to believe that the world is less secure today than 35 years ago. The courts would likely defer to police judgement on the size of the cordoned area given the courts’ relative ignorance of operational security issues. The reasoning will be similar to the rationale behind s. 10.1(2) of the FMIOA. The police would tell the courts that cordoning off a chunk of downtown Toronto is necessary to protect foreign leaders and keep order and the way they do it is justified. The court would likely accept that.

Presumably, if cordoning off passes the Waterfield test, it will also be justified under s. 1 of the Charter. (I am not going into detail on this, but see R. v. Clayton, 2007 SCC 32 for a related discussion.) Of course, unless a court finds that we have a Charter right to freely go downtown, s. 1 won’t even come up.

I am not happy with the G20 summit’s impact on Toronto. It will hurt downtown businesses (except hotels), cause traffic chaos, and bring clashes between the police and protesters. Having to show ID and submit to searches to move around your own city is a sacrifice of our liberties and it simply looks bad in a democracy. Walls separating city quarters are notorious in history, and we probably don’t want any resemblance here. But the police likely have full legal authority to cordon off streets for the G20 summit, and any challenge to such cordons should be not legal but political.

Pulat Yunusov

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