No fines were issued in Kingston’s second No More Lockdowns Canada-organized “pop-up church” last weekend after organizers agreed to abide by Reopening Ontario Act (ROA) regulations as enforced by Kingston Police. The event, which occurred at McBurney Park on the afternoon of Sunday, May 30, 2021, attracted about 30 attendees and onlookers, before the event was split into several smaller services at different times through the afternoon.
Kingston Police Sergeant Steve Koopman addressed the crowd shortly before 4 p.m. as the service was set to begin, advising them that attendees could be subject to fines if the gathering exceeded 10 people. Sgt. Koopman indicated that he had spoken to event organizer Connie Fournier earlier in the week, and had hoped that his message to her in that courtesy telephone call would be heeded.
Organizers had brought sound equipment this time, which they said police officers at the first “pop-up church” event had recommended in order to keep attendees from huddling together too closely to hear the speaker. That measure, though, would not be enough to set aside the prescribed gathering limits set out in the ROA. Under the regulations in effect at the time of the event, said Sgt. Koopman, simply having attendees spread out further would be insufficient, as the limitation for religious gatherings was set out as no more than 10 outdoors.
As the size of the crowd increased, Sgt. Koopman asked the organizers to coordinate a dispersal to bring the numbers back within the allowed limits. “We’re hoping that you can keep it to 10 and under,” said Sgt. Koopman, “I’ll let you know that if I see that it’s going above that number, regardless of how you’re doing the spacing, then I will be unfortunately, interrupting the service and dispersing you.”
Barbara Deck, the guest speaker at the event, spoke to Sgt. Koopman. “You’re our protectors, and we just want to let you know, there is no violence here, right? We just came to worship our God. And as far as I remember, the Charter of Rights does say that we can do that.”
“I’m not going to get into that debate with you,” Sgt. Koopman replied, “The way that the Charter works when there’s a Declaration of Emergency with COVID occurring, that’s an argument that you can take up with the courts, not one that I’m going to have a debate on, not here… I understand you may have differences of opinion, and I would respect that. In a normal case, not related to COVID, then obviously the right to freedom of assembly is one that we massively respect… Unfortunately due to COVID regulations, you are limited to 10.”
“I have the right to charge immediately,” Sgt. Koopman continued. “I’m not going to do that. If people are going to actually respect the request to disperse, I will not be laying charges… If people… want to prove a point, they refuse to disperse, unfortunately they will be receiving a ticket. That’s totally up to you folks if that’s something you feel strongly about, but I want to let you know in advance.”
Sgt. Koopman noted that many churches are using technology to facilitate their services. Deck replied, “Well, that’s their choice. It’s our choice to worship. Please let us worship.”
After some discussion, event organizers asked if the group of about 30 could be split into three groups of 10, and only one group would stay for the service. Once the service was complete, the other two groups would each come for their own separate service in sequence. Sgt. Koopman agreed that this was a viable solution that would keep the event aligned with then-current regulations.
Following the services, Sgt. Koopman explained why enforcement of the ROA regulations differed at this event compared to the first “pop-up church” the previous week, when a larger group was permitted to gather without charges. “It comes down to the information we’re provided in advance,” said Sgt. Koopman. “There was a No More Lockdown protest outside of City Hall either two or three weekends ago that we were aware of, that I attended along with bylaw officers and we were able to disperse that one and charges were laid in that case. The one last week, unfortunately it was not one that the CORE (Community Oriented Response and Enforcement) unit was aware of prior to. So that was a uniform patrol response by the platoon that was working that day, and unfortunately due to high level of calls for service, as we know sometimes that can limit our response… at that point there were three officers in relation to a relatively high number of 70 people…much more than the one I attended two or three weeks ago and much more than today’s.”
Sgt. Koopman noted that there are a number of factors that are considered when responding to unanticipated protests, including the safety of attendees, non-attendees nearby, and safety of officers as well. “The supervisor [last week] did the best that he could. He had a conversation with them, advised them it was best to prescribe to health regulations in terms of trying to be six feet apart and wear masks. So, in that case we realized that, you know, ultimately that is usually not the approach but it was what we were limited to on that day.”
He noted that the service in McBurney Park was a different situation. “We were made aware of this one in advance and because of that, the CORE unit was able to attend today. And because we deal with this on a regular basis, our approach is one that is consistent and one that we do prescribe to not only in agreement with Dr. Moore and KFL&A Public Health, but I believe with the rest of the community as well, that we need to make sure that we are continuing to keep the Kingston community as safe as possible. Our numbers are down in terms of contagion and our vaccinations are up for doing well, and we just want that to continue.”
Sgt. Koopman noted that the conversation between organizers and police at McBurney Park on May 30 was measured and respectful throughout their interactions, and that he does not dispute the group’s right to worship. “You have the right to religious service and to worship your God, you just have to limit it to 10,” he told organizers. “She again was good to speak to,” Sgt. Koopman said reflecting on his telephone conversation with Fournier prior to the event. “She was advised and cautioned that not only would potentially everyone that was a participant be charged, but as one or potentially the sole organizer that she would receive a summons to court where she would see probably a minimum $10,000 and as much of a maximum of $100,000 fine.”
Deck also noted that their group has a high regard for the police during her conversation with Sgt. Koopman. “We respect you; we honor you. We pray for the police and over our nation, protection, we do honour that.”
Sgt Koopman also spoke to several other attendees, believed to be protesters against the gathering, and advised them that while religious services such as weddings, funerals and worship services are permitted to have up to 10 attendees, others are limited to five attendees. “There are a few counter protesters here, they’re staying under their numbers,” Sgt. Koopman said. “We just want to make sure there’s no disagreement, no conflict or no tension at the same time.” That group also abided by Kingston Police’s direction and no charges were laid.