The Ontario government acted with "good intentions" but too much haste when it passed a law that police used to exercise heightened powers during the G20 summit in Toronto, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Wednesday.
McGuinty declined to offer an apology for what ombudsman Andre Marin called a mass violation of civil rights, or for the fact the government failed to tell people it had given police extra powers for the June summit.
"The police were given additional authority. We moved too quickly to provide that authority," McGuinty said.
"We did not take the appropriate time to fully reflect on the consequences of this new regulation and we moved too quickly in terms of communicating, and it was not done on a broad enough scale."
More than 1,000 arrests were made during the G20, but the ombudsman said hundreds or thousands more people were detained without cause.
The 1939 Public Works Protection Act was originally passed to protect courthouses and other public buildings after Canada declared war on Germany. Updating it to give police extra powers during the G20 was probably a mistake, McGuinty admitted.
"At a minimum there is a growing understanding and consensus among thoughtful people that the very premise of our regulation, the law itself, was likely not in keeping with the balance that we would want to strike at the beginning of the 21st century when it comes to public safety and freedom of expression," he said.
"We clearly acted on the basis of a law that has now been brought into disrepute and we look forward to making the necessary changes at the earliest possible opportunity."
Police made request
The government was acting on a request from police to deal with possible terrorist threats at the G20 summit and even the ombudsman said its motives were good, McGuinty noted.
"He said that we acted with good intentions, that the police came to us and said: 'We need your help. We're going to be hosting the G20 and there are possibly the top 20 terrorist targets on the face of this planet coming together in one city," the premier said.
The ombudsman blasted the Liberal government for giving police wartime powers and for making a "premeditated, conscious decision" to keep the extra powers secret from the public.
The government did clarify the law for police, said McGuinty.
"We moved pretty quickly on this thing in order to help our police at the earliest possible opportunity," he said.
"Then there was the mix-up what it actually stood for, what it represented, and we communicated directly with the police."
'Appalling poor legal judgment'
In the legislature, the Progressive Conservatives said the Liberals passed a law similar to the War Measures Act and conspired to keep it a secret from the public.
"Quite frankly, the old hangdog look, the old promise to do better simply isn't going to cut it anymore," said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.
The New Democrats blasted McGuinty for passing the G20 law in secret and demanded the premier fire the former community safety minister, Rick Bartolucci, from cabinet.
"The premier is a lawyer, but he and his government have demonstrated appalling poor legal judgment with their actions," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"Did he really think it was perfectly OK to secretly enact an illegal and unconstitutional wartime regulation?"
McGuinty punted most of the questions to new Community Safety Minister Jim Bradley, angering the opposition parties and making for a rowdy day in the legislature, with the Speaker throwing out some Liberal and Tory members for unparliamentary language.