Right to privacy shouldn't depend on property, say Winnipeg anti-poverty groups

Anti-poverty advocates in Winnipeg will have a say in a critical Supreme Court of Canada case that will impact the privacy rights of people without a home.

Local organizations seek intervenor status in Supreme Court appeal of Ontario arrest

Organizations in Winnipeg have filed a written submission in an appeal over privacy rights to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada this October. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Anti-poverty advocates in Winnipeg will have a say in a critical Supreme Court of Canada case that will impact the privacy rights of people without a home.

Four organizations have filed a written submission as intervenors in a Ontario case questioning whether police officers had the right to enter a backyard without permission and eventually arrest a man they happened to meet.

The appeal to be heard by Canada's highest court hangs on whether the right to privacy only exists where people possess property rights, said Allison Fenske, staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Centre in Winnipeg.

"What does it really mean when that expectation of privacy seems to be attached to your ability to control property?" asked Fenske, who is helping represent the coalition on a pro-bono basis.

"If you leave your privacy rights at your door, what happens if you don't have a door?"

Backyard entry

The Supreme Court will consider the appeal of Tom Le, a young Asian man who was socializing in a fenced backyard when he was approached by police officers in 2014. The cops were looking for other individuals when they walked through the backyard, uninvited, and met Le and his friends. During the conversation, the officers sought identification and became concerned that Le was carrying a weapon. He was arrested and his weapon and drugs were seized.

The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that Le did not have an expectation of privacy since he was simply a guest.

"Our clients would say that [decision] fails to recognize that there's many people who don't have homes or aren't in control of their own homes," Fenske said.

The Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, End Homelessness Winnipeg, Canada Without Poverty and Canadian Mental Health Association are parties to the intervention, sent to the federal court on Tuesday. Le's appeal will be heard on Oct. 12 with a decision to follow.

Authority figures

Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, feels it is important to stand up against increased state intervention.

He said marginalized groups like Indigenous people are disproportionately linked to authority figures, such as police officers and child welfare organizations, with whom they've historically had a fraught relationship. He questions if offering more leeway to people in power is a positive step. 

Fenske said her clients are invested in the case because they want to show how people living in poverty can lack control and resources over their lives.

"Privacy shouldn't be something that only the wealthy can afford." 

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Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at