People ticketed for breaking public health rules during a pro-Palestinian car rally in Halifax say they were shocked to receive a fine while sitting in their car and plan to fight the fine.
The rally, which organizers with the Atlantic Canada Palestinian Society called the Free Palestine COVID-safe car rally, saw more than 200 cars participate.
The group began at Tower Road and Inglis Street, outside Saint Mary's University, before the long line of cars drove through downtown streets, waving flags and honking.
But multiple people say they were ticketed in the parking lot before the drive began when there was a bottleneck of traffic trying to leave.
Nada Musa was sitting in a car with her roommate, who was driving, and two of the roommate's family members, all in their COVID-19 bubble.
She said one Halifax Regional Police officer hit the car as he walked by in the parking lot, shouting at them to move along.
'We were really shocked'
Soon after, another officer came up to the car and issued Musa's roommate a ticket under the Health Protection Act for physically gathering with "everyone outside," referring to the nearby cars. That ticket carries a $2,000 fine.
"So I go, 'Wait, you're telling me the gathering is people in their cars' … we didn't even come into contact with anyone outside our car," Musa said Sunday.
"We were really shocked."
Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella said Saturday that the rally was an illegal gathering and the time for demonstrations and protests "isn't now."
In a news release Monday, police said 17 tickets were issued at the event. Nine were for offences under the Health Protection Act, two for offences under the Emergency Management Act and six for offences under the Motor Vehicle Act.
The province has been under lockdown for more than two weeks to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus as the Halifax region deals with community spread, high cases and increasing hospitalization.
Musa said she understands how serious the virus is and felt like their group did everything right to keep themselves and the public safe.
But she said she saw police ticket other people for honking and making noise, or pull them over at different points of the rally as they drove along, for leaving their homes for non-essential reasons.
At the same time, Musa said lots of people were moving around on scooters or enjoying the sunshine in groups and were not ticketed.
As someone with family in the Palestinian territories, Musa said raising awareness of the escalating violence in the Middle East was too important to just leave to social media, and attending the rally to make noise was vital.
"They're calling us every day. They don't know if they're going to make it tomorrow," Musa said.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrations like Halifax's were held across Canada on Saturday, in large cities like Toronto and Vancouver.
Musa said it was unfair for Halifax police to single out their rally as an illegal one, alongside one on Citadel Hill at the same time. That event was organized on Facebook by a group called Freedom Nova Scotia, and a small number of people showed up Saturday to protest the current restrictions.
"We were not gathering on the hill or having people close to each other. People were in their bubbles, their families," Musa said.
She added her roommate is planning to work with a lawyer to argue the ticket.
Halifax lawyer Peter Planetta said he was watching part of the rally Saturday and what he observed did not violate the Health Protection Act.
"People have the right under our charter and constitution to peacefully assemble and to demonstrate, and that's what these people were doing," said Planetta in an interview Monday.
"There are some serious constitutional questions here and I fear there was an injustice and their rights were violated."
Planetta is encouraging anyone who was ticketed at the event to reach out to him. He noted he has already heard from several people and will be taking on the work pro bono.
Dana Elborno, one of the rally organizers with the Atlantic Canada Palestinian Society, said Sunday she is especially upset with the tickets because they reached out to Halifax police days before the rally.
Elborno said police thanked their group for the notice and a few officers arrived at the Inglis Street parking lot around noon before the rally began.
She said the police told them they were there to make sure public health rules were followed, but never said the rally was illegal or that it should be stopped.
Then as more and more cars arrived, many honking horns to grab attention, Elborno said police informed them they were starting to get noise complaints and tickets would now be handed out.
Police blocked one of the parking lot exits to only allow cars to leave through Robie Street, Elborno said, which she feels added to the traffic issues.
"I feel like I was betrayed by the police," Elborno said. "They gave us their word and they were fine with it … they knew that this was going to happen."
Elborno said she can't see how their rally was any different from cars sitting in a parking lot at a grocery store, or people gathering within their households at the beach.
Questions should go to Public Health: HRM lawyer
Kinsella, the police chief, was asked about the weekend gatherings and enforcement during the Board of Police Commissioners meeting on Monday.
Coun. Lindell Smith asked if a group planning a rally should go through the police or municipality for permits to hold an event.
"The police do not give permission for rallies or protests or demonstrations. We do our very best to make sure that people are given the opportunity to do it safely, and be provided those ... kind of things when they're forming up for those purposes under, you know, their right to protest," Kinsella said.
The chief said police are enforcing the current Public Health orders, with the help of the injunction on Friday that added additional powers for the police. Kinsella added that the injunction applies to any gathering breaking current restrictions, anywhere in the province.
Martin Ward, a lawyer for the city, added that from time to time there are "questions of interpretation" around exactly what those Public Health restrictions cover.
He said the office of Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health, has been very cooperative for most groups looking for advice on whether their events follow the rules.
"If some group wants to know whether they think they'd be in violation of the restrictions, then they should be contacting Dr. Strang's office," Ward said.
Strang addresses car rally
In a COVID-19 briefing Monday, Strang was asked about Saturday's car rally. He said right now the province is not allowing "any type" of gathering.
"Even people getting together in a group, in a parking lot together in cars, is technically a gathering," Strang said.
"Because as we saw, not everybody was in their cars, unfortunately."
People have to remain in very small groups, Strang said, only getting together with their household while outside, or one or two other people while socially distanced.
"We cannot right now have large numbers of people getting together," Strang said.
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