Manitoba lockdown jumps the shark

Manitoba lockdown jumps the shark

Things in Manitoba are getting weird. Yes, the province’s rising COVID-19 cases are troubling. But perhaps just as troubling is the Pallister government’s recent response, which has lurched from oppressive to bizarre and irrational. New measures like snitch lines, private police, and removing Christmas toys from shop shelves have been announced. These measures won’t stop COVID, and will only serve to alienate the public. Manitoba has registered record-breaking case counts over the last week, and more reported deaths in that short time than in the first seven and a half months of the pandemic.

But the government’s new lockdown has treaded into surreal territory.

As more restrictive gathering limits have been brought into place, the government has launched an enhanced government snitch line, complete with social media campaign. Neighbours are encouraged to report on one another if they notice an “illegal gathering.” Pallister tweeted out an ad for his new-and-improved snitch line, with a silhouetted figure on the phone, the blazing words “COVID TIP LINE”, and a caption stating “we’re all part of #TeamManitoba”. Nothing makes one feel more like part of a team than asking neighbours to report on one another.

While it should go without saying, apparently in 2020 it needs to be said: snitch lines are a bad idea.

Enforcement has a role in fighting the pandemic, and large indoor parties are undeniably a part of the virus’ spread. But the government soliciting complaints is not the right approach. Snitch lines are just asking for people to report on multigenerational households and Christmas dinners. Large super-spreader events already attract attention from police, so soliciting more reporting will only increase the number of frivolous complaints.

Evidence also suggests that people are more likely to report on visible minorities. And because the underlying laws are so broad – gatherings are restricted to only five people – there are many potentially “suspicious” gatherings for people to report on. This can lead to more unreasonable searches and arbitrary detentions, in violation of our Charter protected rights. Exposing already over-policed communities to more reporting for the simple act of existing in their own homes is a terrible government policy, and won’t eliminate this virus.

And that’s not where the trouble with this new lockdown ends. The new enforcement heavy-approach adopted by the Pallister government has now empowered over 3,300 personnel across various government agencies to enforce public health orders, including the RCMP, municipal police, municipal bylaw officers, health protection, conservation officers, workplace safety officers and even the liquor, gaming and cannabis authority.

Even tapping upon seemingly every government employee with a uniform isn’t enough for Premier Pallister’s new rigid lockdown. The government announced they signed a $1 million contract with private security firm G4S to provide up to 90 private officers to enforce the lockdown measures.

Calling in a private police force to ticket citizens for eating turkey dinners is not even the weirdest part of the new lockdown. On November 19, Premier Pallister essentially banned Christmas shopping.

The new lockdown measure states that retail businesses may open, but may only sell essential items from a government approved list. Businesses that sell food, medication, outdoor winter clothing, liquor and personal care or baby items are allowed to stay open. But non-essential items like books, toys, and sporting equipment need to be removed from store shelves or the aisles roped off.

It will be news to most shoppers that COVID lurks among pokemon cards and hockey skates, but mittens and milk are safe.

The Charter protects the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of association. While government action can impose “reasonable limits” on those rights, this particular limit appears arbitrary and political.

As the government lockdown becomes more political and arbitrary, it loses its rationale for limiting citizens’ rights, and loses the support of the public. This will ultimately undermine the public health goals that the Premier is trying to achieve. This lockdown has jumped the shark, and the government needs to reconsider these measures.

Christine Van Geyn is Litigation Director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation. This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Sun.