Ten years after Toronto hosted the G20 summit, a civil suit launched against the Toronto police has finally been resolved by the Ontario Court of Appeal. The decision—Stewart v. Toronto (Police Services Board)—represents a strong affirmation of the constitutional right to protest, especially in public spaces like parks.
The case arose out of the G20 summit held in Toronto in 2010. A group of activists had organized a public rally in Allan Gardens, a public park in downtown Toronto. Based on vague reports of potential violence by “Black Bloc” protesters, the police set up an indiscriminate perimeter around the park the day before the rally and required all those wishing to participate in the protest to submit to a search of their personal belongings. The police also seized items that they believed could be used to defeat the effects of tear gas and pepper spray, such as goggles, bandanas, and vinegar.
The police stopped the appellant, Luke Stewart, and told him they were searching all protesters under the authority of the Trespass to Property Act. Mr. Stewart refused to consent to the search, believing it to be unconstitutional. When he attempted to move past the police perimeter, he was forcibly detained. The police then searched his bag and confiscated a pair of swimming goggles.
Mr. Stewart brought a lawsuit against the police in 2011, seeking Charter damages for violation of his freedom of expression, right not to be arbitrarily detained, and right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure. The Superior Court dismissed his claim in 2018, ruling that the police had the requisite search powers and did not infringe any of his constitutional rights.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) intervened in this case at both the trial level and at the appeal, arguing for limits on the power of police to interfere with the rights of protesters.
Winston Gee, an associate at Torys LLP and former Asper Centre Clinic student, presented the CCLA’s submissions at the hearing of the appeal.
In reasons written by Justice Brown, the Court of Appeal agreed with the CCLA that the police had no legal authority for their actions. It overturned each of the trial judge’s rulings and awarded Mr. Stewart $500 in Charter damages. The Court also affirmed the fundamental importance of free political expression, especially in public parks:
“Our civil liberties tradition recognizes that public parks, such as Allan Gardens, are civic spaces naturally compatible with the public expression of views, whether the content of those views support or dissent from the popular sentiments of the day… The freedom to engage in the peaceful public expression of political views is central to our conception of a free and democratic society. Freedom of expression requires zealous protection.”
Despite the low damages award, Gee was pleased that “the Court accepted one of our central submissions at the hearing—that the Trespass to Property Act does not create any substantive property rights but is merely a mechanism to enforce existing rights that come from other sources, such as the common law.” As a result, the Act could not be used by the police to impose “conditions of entry” of their choosing. That power properly belonged to the City as the common law owner and occupier of the park—and it is subject always to the Charter.
Gee said that his work on this case “benefitted immensely from my time at the Asper Centre. That’s where I first gained experience with appellate advocacy, including by learning from leading constitutional litigators like Mary Eberts and Marlys Edwardh. I also had the opportunity to assist with the Asper Centre’s intervention in Henry v. British Columbia (Attorney General), one of the Supreme Court’s leading cases on Charter damages. That experience was particularly relevant to this case.”
Gee also thanked his colleagues at Torys for providing excellent mentorship and for giving him the opportunity to argue such an important case.
by T. Schreier, with Winston Gee (JD/MPP UTLaw 2017)