One summer evening in the mid-to-late 1990s, around perhaps 9 p.m., I and three friends were playing euchre on the backyard patio of the Selley homestead in midtown Toronto. There was mild banter, an occasional clinking of glasses. Excellent music wafted out from the family room at low volume. It was shaping up as an enjoyable but thoroughly forgettable evening. But then twin flashlight beams pierced the garden gate. It was two of Toronto’s finest, investigating a complaint from an unidentified neighbour about a bacchanalian party underway at number 132, the likes of which Moore Park had never seen.
The officers surveyed the scene with a look that said, “this is even more ridiculous than usual.” We bade each other good evening and they were on their way.
I remember asking at the time: Why wouldn’t this unknown neighbour just 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. The answer, we surmised, was because this person had no legitimate complaint to make. Getting the cops out, hopefully ruining our night, was the point of the exercise. Some neighbourhood busybodies might be experts on the letter of the law, but their goal is making people’s lives miserable.
The incident came back to me in considering the City of Toronto’s new online COVID-19 snitch portal, the latest insult in a spree of bizarrely misanthropic behaviour from some of Canada’s biggest municipal governments.
Some of the verboten activities this new tool invites us to report are perfectly reasonable: businesses and construction sites operating that shouldn’t be; price-gouging. I very much suspect the city will wind up inundated by hysterics who don’t understand the rules or misremember what things used to cost, but these are verifiable transgressions worthy of enforcement. A construction site that’s open one day is likely to be open when an inspector drops by. (Mind you, I can think of one condo/hotel development that really shouldn’t need to be snitched on: The queue of cement trucks is something of a giveaway.)
Inviting those hysterics to report “individuals not adhering to physical distancing on private property (e.g. parties) or City of Toronto property,” however, is an engraved invitation to abuse. At the best of times, Toronto’s various enforcement agencies are not known for their rapid response to non-emergencies. If someone reports two neighbours kibitzing on the sidewalk or in the lobby at less than two metres’ distance, the conversation will be long over before anyone arrives to check.
Their goal is making people’s lives miserable
Then, of course, it will be up to the officer in question’s discretion how to proceed. And to be fair to Toronto’s enforcers, they don’t yet seem to have gone crazy the way their counterparts in the nation’s capital have — harassing and fining people for behaviour that plainly does not violate any municipal or provincial law. But the simple fact, pandemic or no pandemic, is that no one should have to answer to anyone else for a conversation or a walk in the park that has concluded. It is no longer anyone else’s business.
As it stands, officers on patrol seem to have no problem finding enough behaviour to correct. The municipal 311 telephone hotline has fielded hundreds of snitch calls as it is. There is no need to make it simpler, to eliminate even the need to speak to another human being while ratting out fellow citizens, to further encourage people who really just want to settle scores and make others’ lives as miserable as possible. It’s a strategy that can only undermine the public’s trust in government, and in each other, at a time when that would be the worst possible outcome.
On the bright side, the snitch portal invites users to peruse the actual bylaws in question before lodging their complaints. The more people who know their rights, the better. Not many will click through, mind you. It’s not exactly user-friendly. Indeed, like much of the basic government communications work we’ve seen during this pandemic, the shoddiness rankles almost as much as the intent.
I very much suspect the city will wind up inundated by hysterics who don’t understand the rules
Click on “Non-Compliance with Physical Distancing By-Law” and you are presented with a form on which to report any such behaviour occurring “on private property … or City of Toronto property.” That’s pretty much all property. Immediately below, however, it says you have to call 311 to report such behaviour “in a greenspace, public square or city park.”
What the hell is the difference? It’s a question that doesn’t need answering, and a form that doesn’t need filling out. The vast majority of urban Canadians are behaving responsibly, with admirable patience and solidarity, many weeks into this unprecedented lockdown. These ever-increasing government crackdowns against what is in many cases perfectly reasonable behaviour should be taken an opportunity for reasonable people to unite against the snitches and the governments that enable them — for the greater good, in both the short term and long.
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