City vowing to pursue all pandemic fines

The City of Ottawa says it plans to collect all fines issued during the COVID-19 pandemic, including ones handed out in parks that some in the legal community call "legally dubious."

Some people in Ottawa were fined $880 for sitting on park benches during the pandemic's first wave

Canadian Civil Liberties Association says Ottawa should drop some pandemic fines

1 year ago
Duration 1:00
Abby Deshman, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says the city should not be pursuing many fines issued during the first wave of the pandemic, when restrictions were changing rapidly and residents were trying to interpret the new rules.

The City of Ottawa says it plans to collect all fines issued during the COVID-19 pandemic, including ones handed out in parks that some in the legal community call "legally dubious."

In the spring, the city moved to enforce pandemic restrictions, shutting facilities including parks and playground equipment. Dozens of fines were handed out during the first wave of the pandemic alone, including $880 tickets to people who allegedly sat on park benches or used off-limits payground equipment

Some who received those fines said they hoped the city would choose not to come after them, since parks and playground equipment have been kept open during more recent lockdowns. 

"It's disappointing, for sure, to know that I have to deal with this $880. [It's] a huge deal for a 24-year-old. I'm hoping that once I get in front of a judge, I can explain myself properly," said Alexandra Plante, who was fined for sitting on a park bench in Orléans in April. 

Plante, one of the first people fined during a bylaw blitz in the spring, said she had no idea she was breaking any rules. 

"I think there's a huge difference between sitting on a bench and being caught at a gathering with 30 people or failing to wear a mask," said Plante.

A park closed by COVID-19 in Ottawa in April 2020. (Jean-Sébastien Marier/Radio-Canada)

City's stance an 'embarrassment'

In April, refugee advocates called on bylaw to "warn and inform" after Quasi Alnofal, a young Syrian man with limited English, was fined $880 for briefly allowing his young siblings to climb on a closed play structure during an afternoon walk.

"Government officials' attitudes on mental health, and people getting out and being able to exercise, have really changed," said Ronalee Carey, an immigration and refugee lawyer who was part of a group that helped sponsor the Alnofal family and bring them to Ottawa in 2017.

"So if they're not penalizing people for doing that action now, because the science has changed ... why would they want to persecute people who were charged before?"

The Alnofal family poses in April in the public park where Quasi was fined for letting his siblings briefly play on the playground. (Submitted by Ronalee Carey)

Carey said she believes tickets handed out for "blatantly opposing the rules on gatherings" make sense, but she wants the city to bring in an "amnesty" for tickets given in parks. 

"I think, frankly, it's an embarrassment to the city for them to be pursuing these kinds of things," she said.

'Doesn't make sense'

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it's "disappointed" the city is pursuing all tickets and doesn't believe it's in the public interest.

"There were a lot of concerning fines and punitive enforcement handed out during the first wave of COVID that — even at that time — we weren't really sure how they connected to public health goals and what we knew about the spread of COVID," said the association's Abby Deshman.

"Laws were changing extremely quickly, day-by-day, what you could and couldn't do changed ... It really doesn't make sense to me to proceed with these legally dubious tickets, given the pressing crisis in our justice system where we have murder trials that have been postponed for close to a year now."

Deshman also said Ottawa stood out during the first wave as being "one of the cities that ticketed more than others."

Ronalee Carey, an Ottawa refugee and immigration lawyer, says it's an 'embarrassment' for the city to be pursuing fines like the one issued against a young Syrian man with limited English. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

City waiting for courts to reopen

In a statement, the city said would pursue the fines "once the courts reopen and defendants have had the opportunity to exercise one of the many options available to them."

"We are still offering support to individuals through our online offerings. They can pay fines online, request a trial date, contest a parking ticket or plead guilty and make submissions as to penalty," said Alain Hyppolite, program manager of citizen services.

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Watson declined to comment, saying that "as an elected official," the mayor refrains from commenting "on matters that are within the Provincial Offences Court."

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