AS protests against provincial lockdown rules draw densely packed and unmasked crowds, Manitoba’s public health order enforcement teams have been slow to issue tickets and fines, often waiting weeks to track down scofflaws.
Experts and provincial officials say that choice has been made in an effort to preserve public safety and prevent "volatile" situations.
"There’s maybe more of an art than a science to knowing what that balance is, and knowing when it’s time to end the lawbreaking or let a certain movement on the street play out so people have their say and ensure that the situation doesn’t become worse through mass arrests," says Eric Adams, vice-dean of law at the University of Alberta.
"Faced with moments of protest or civil disobedience, especially as numbers get larger, law enforcement is trying to defuse the situation productively."
Just four public health order violation tickets were issued in the hours following a protest of more than 100 anti-lockdown advocates on the back steps of the law courts building Monday in Winnipeg.
An April protest at The Forks drew more than 300 people, but just 20 tickets had been issued two weeks later.
In both cases, the province has asserted investigations are ongoing, and video evidence will be used to track down and penalize attendees.
Adams said the delayed tactics likely come as part of an overall need to balance both upholding the rule of law and allowing protests to proceed without escalation.
"Sometimes de-escalation and those other interests of public safety will lead police or others to not indiscriminately apply a law that’s even being flagrantly broken because, in the end, it’s actually in the broader public interest for the situation to de-escalate and for people to get home safely," Adams said in a phone interview Tuesday, adding officials may choose to specifically target event leaders as opposed to each individual attendee.
In an email statement Tuesday, the province claimed such protests present a "unique enforcement challenge" for police and other enforcement teams, "requiring a balance between the need to enforce public health orders with the need to protect their safety and the safety of the community."
The province explained while enforcement officers do attend "every protest" — adding they have been to more than 50 across Manitoba to date — the demonstrations "can become volatile if enforcement action is taken during the protest itself."
The provincial representative said enforcement officials instead issue tickets after events to reduce "risk to themselves and to the public."
Winnipeg Police Service noted Monday’s law courts protest did result in one arrest, after "enforcement action" led to a "minor assault."
Police said officers in attendance at Monday’s rally were not the lead enforcers, and were instead there in a support role for public health officers, though they did not specify what that support entails.
During the protest, one man was arrested, cautioned and released without charges after the alleged assault, police said. Adams cautioned enforcement teams are being watched by the public, who may take issue with an apparent hesitance to enforce the rule of law at such protests. On the other hand, he noted, enforcement teams may be hoping to deter increased protest attendance by de-escalating instead of openly enforcing on-site.
"It’s no question that we’re at a delicate moment in this pandemic, when the broader public wants to see the enforcement of measures that they’ve been living under for some time. There can be some frustration when it seems like laws are not being applied equally," Adams said, noting other protests in recent years have been met with more indiscriminate treatment from law enforcement.
The provincial representative noted more tickets are expected as a consequence of Monday’s protest, as the investigation is still ongoing.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.