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Toronto councillor wants city to look into 'potentially catastrophic' demonstrations on Highway 401 overpass

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A Toronto city councillor wants the city to look into what it can do about protests on Highway 401 overpasses before a “catastrophic accident” takes place.

Coun. James Pasternak put forward a motion to the city’s Infrastructure and Environment Committee on Tuesday, which asks staff for clarity on the “existing safety policies and available enforcement measures” to keep the roadway clear and to specify who has jurisdiction over protests when they do occur. The motion also asks staff to provide an “itemized list of safety and enforcement measures to keep pedestrians, cyclists and motorists safe” during potential protests.

Although the motion doesn’t name any specific group, on Monday Pasternak called out the ongoing demonstrations by pro-Palestinian groups on the overpass at Avenue Road, which he said uses the waving of flags, the fixing of banners and amplified sound to make sure drivers can see their cause. The protests have seen police temporarily close the overpass on multiple occasions in recent weeks.

“It's a dangerous, potentially catastrophic situation,” Pasternak said of the demonstrations that have taken place in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood.

The protest at Avenue Road and Highway 401 made headlines over the weekend after Toronto police officers were filmed delivering coffee and donuts to demonstrators on Jan. 6, which was purchased by other protesters who had been blocked from participating in the rally on the bridge.

Video of that incident prompted an apology from Toronto Police Chief Myron Demikiw, who released a statement saying: "Whatever the intent, the impact has been to cause concern and confusion, and for that, I am sorry.”

The MP for Eglinton-Lawrence Marco Mendocino, weighed in on the recurring demonstration in a tweet referencing the video. The former federal minister of public safety suggested the city designate the intersection a “community safety zone” to prevent future displays, a recommendation Toronto Deputy Mayor Michael Colle rebuffed on Monday.

“Why didn’t they use those tools back when the truckers were up there in Ottawa? They didn't. They called in the War Measures Act. Is that what he wants us to do here?” Colle asked alongside Pasternak at a news conference calling for the federal government to investigate a recent arson at a Jewish-owned deli as an act of terrorism.

Pasternak said the city has called the OPP for support in controlling the rolling demonstrations, but stressed the jurisdiction of officers is blurred because the rallies are taking place on a municipal road over a provincially-controlled highway.

The bridge at Avenue Road and highway 401 is seen in Toronto, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

In a statement issued to CTV News Toronto on Monday, a spokesperson for the Ontario Solicitor General said: “Resource allocation is the responsibility of local law enforcement. The government is not involved in operational decisions, and any requests for OPP support should be directed to them.”

The motion, which carried following Monday’s meeting, will now go to city council for a vote next month. 

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