After nine weeks of 'freedom' rallies in Barrie and what many people in the community view as inaction by law enforcement, police say they are doing what they can in an ever-changing situation.
The weekly anti-lockdown rally held on Saturday took place in the Sadlon Arena parking lot after the city fenced off Meridian Place in downtown Barrie, where the protests had originated. The rallies have attracted anywhere from 200 to 500 people each weekend.
Under the guise of a family festival, the new south-end event had bouncy castles, a magician, a barbecue and other kid-friendly attractions.
In a crowd estimated to be around 350 people, Barrie police handed out five tickets on Saturday for contravening the Reopening Ontario Act.
Many people in the community have asked why more is not being done to stop the rallies, which have included mask-less protesters and little regard for physical distancing.
Barrie police communications co-ordinator Peter Leon said several factors are at play.
“This past Saturday was promoted toward young children and there were many kids of all ages there," he told BarrieToday. "We want to be cautious and sensitive to that."
For several weeks, police have said they would employ a 'graduated' and 'measured' approach to the rallies.
Since the first rally on March 13, police have handed out approximately two dozen tickets.
The bouncy castles, in particular, led to the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) sending an inspector to Saturday's event.
TSSA spokesperson Alexandra Campbell told BarrieToday the operator of the bouncy castle did not have a permit or a licence to operate the inflatable and a report was being written on how to proceed.
“The TSSA inspector was on hand to review the situation and indeed there were some discrepancies,” Campbell said. “We take them very seriously and right now the operator will be charged at least the cost fees for hours worked by the inspector.”
Campbell also said the TSSA doesn’t issue fines, but rather makes a report. Should they feel the need to prosecute, it is up to the courts to decide on possible fines.
“It has the potential to not be cheap, I can say that,” Campbell said of potential fines. “But as it stands, the order is still being written and more will be known in the coming days.”
In an April 2020 story published by BarrieToday, it was reported that a birthday party earlier that month was the city’s first event which led to charges under the Ontario Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. At that time, Leon said police stayed at the scene until everyone left the home.
So why are the freedom rallies being viewed differently?
“People are choosing to be at these events, they are choosing to participate in the rallies and while we can continue to hand out tickets and possible charges, there is a way to go about dealing with a crowd of this size while still maintaining order for the rest of our community,” Leon said Monday.
The five people ticketed on Saturday received $880 fines, including the organizer.
Leon said Saturday's rally was “smaller than had been seen in the past," but added the new location offered challenges that were different than previous weeks.
“Three weeks ago, we saw counter-protesters at Meridian Place, which takes our resources from one area to another to prevent confrontation between the two sides,” said Leon. “There were some confrontational moments, but we were able to keep people calm.”
At that rally, which was the last at Meridian Place before the city placed fencing around the Dunlop Street square, one woman was charged with obstructing police for failing to provide her name to officers when asked by officers. She was also given a Provincial Offences Act summons for failing to comply with an order made during a declared emergency and has a June court date.
The following Saturday, after the barricades went up, protesters marched to Centennial Park and continued the demonstration there.
But Leon said the issues there were just as concerning to police.
“We have a park with other kids and families and we have water, cold water. With all the children around that water, police were again doing what they could to make sure no one was injured in any way,” he said.
Proximity to two major roads (Bayview and Mapleview) and a public dog park also added to police concerns.
“One of the things we’ve always said about these is they are fluid in motion and we have and will continue to adjust our plans right up to the start of the event,” said Leon. “We have to keep the peace and ensure the safety of all. We maintain that these events are unlawful and we will deal with them in that manner.”
While some have called for police to arrest people at the gatherings, Leon said that's not an option according to enforcement measures contained in the Reopening Ontario legislation.
“Under the Reopening Ontario Act and current emergency orders, police have the authority to ticket, which is a Part 1. And under what is known as a Part 3, we can issue a summons to appear before a justice of the peace,” he said. “Those have both been issued.”
Leon also reiterated that police have 30 days to issue more tickets.
“We have been able to identify many from the crowd by different means and it is now just a matter of showing up to a person’s residence and handing them their ticket,” he said. “This action allows us to handle the day of activity and still get tickets to those who chose to participate in the unlawful gathering.”