Chris Selley: It’s time for reasonable Canadians to show solidarity against COVID-19 cookies

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One summer evening in the mid-to-late 1990s, around 9:00 p.m. perhaps, I and three friends were playing at the back patio of the Selley property in downtown Toronto. There was a light joke, an occasional tinkling of glasses. Excellent music came out of the family room at low volume. It promised to be a pleasant evening but completely forgettable. But then, twin flashlight beams pierced the garden door. They were two of the best in Toronto, investigating a complaint from an unidentified neighbor about an ongoing bacchanalian party at number 132, like Moore Park had never seen.

The police surveyed the scene with a look that said, “This is even more ridiculous than usual.” We got good evening and they were on their way.

I remember asking at the time: why didn’t this unknown neighbor pick up the phone and ask us to be even quieter? We were one of two Selleys in the Toronto phone book, if memory serves, and certainly the only one on our street. We assumed the answer was that this person had no legitimate complaints. Getting the cops out, hoping to ruin our night, was the goal of the exercise. Some busy neighborhood organizations may be experts on the letter of the law, but their goal is to make people’s lives miserable.

The incident came back to me when I considered the City of Toronto’s new COVID-19 online portal, the latest insult to a wave of bizarre misanthropic behavior from some of Canada’s largest municipal governments.

Some of the verboten activities that this new tool invites us to report are completely reasonable: companies and construction sites which should not be; pricing. I very much suspect that the city will end up being inundated by hysterics who either don’t understand the rules or can’t remember what it used to cost, but these are verifiable transgressions worthy of enforcement. A construction site open one day is likely to be opened when an inspector passes. (Notice, I can think of a condo / hotel development that really shouldn’t need to be pushed back: the queue of cement trucks is something of a gift.)

Inviting these hysterics to report “individuals who do not adhere to physical distance on private property (eg parties) or on property in the city of Toronto” is, however, an engraved invitation to abuse. Ideally, the various Toronto law enforcement agencies are not known for their rapid response to non-emergency situations. If someone reports that two neighbors are kibitzing on the sidewalk or in the hall within two meters, the conversation will be long before anyone arrives to check.

Their goal is to make people’s lives miserable

Then, of course, it will be up to the officer in question to decide how to proceed. And to be fair to Toronto’s supervisors, they still don’t seem to be going crazy like their counterparts in the National Capital – harassing and fining people for behavior that clearly does not violate any municipal laws or provincial. But the simple fact, pandemic or no pandemic, is that no one should have to answer someone else for a conversation or a walk in the park that has ended. This is no longer the business of others.

As things stand, patrol officers seem to have no problem finding enough behavior to correct. The municipal hotline 311 answered hundreds of instant calls. There is no need to simplify things, to eliminate even the need to speak to another human being while denigrating one’s fellow citizens, to encourage more those who really want to settle their scores and make the lives of others as miserable as possible. It is a strategy that can only undermine public confidence in government and among themselves, at a time when it would be the worst possible outcome.

On the positive side, the Snitch portal invites users to browse the statutes in question before filing their complaints. The more people who know their rights, the better. Few people will click, be careful. It’s not exactly user friendly. Indeed, like much of the basic government communications work that we have seen during this pandemic, shyness is almost as much as intention.

I very much suspect that the city will end up inundated with hysterics who don’t understand the rules

Click on “Non-compliance with the by-law on physical distances” and you will be presented with a form to report any such behavior “on private property … or on property in the city of Toronto”. It’s pretty much the entire property. Immediately below, however, it says that you should call 311 to report such behavior “in a green space, a public square, or a city park”.

What is the difference? It is a question that does not need to be answered, and a form that does not need to be filled out. The vast majority of Canadians living in urban areas behave in a responsible manner, with admirable patience and solidarity, several weeks after this unprecedented blockage. These ever-increasing government crackdowns on what is in many cases perfectly reasonable behavior should be an opportunity for reasonable people to unite against the living and governments that allow them – for the greater good, in the short and long term.

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