When truck driver Brian Benson, who recently crossed the U.S. border into Alberta, saw a man in Walmart with sniffles and using a tissue, he was stunned and decided to take the matter into his own hands. But was he right to do so? Depends who you ask.

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Pedestrians walk along the closed eastbound lanes of Memorial Drive, adjacent to the Bow River pathway in Calgary. The city closed the lanes to allow for more physical distancing for pedestrians, cyclists and other recreationists during the pandemic. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

When truck driver Brian Benson, who recently crossed the U.S. border into Alberta, saw a man in Walmart with sniffles and using a tissue, he was stunned and decided to take the matter into his own hands.

Benson took photos of the man and his licence plate. He also said he told the man he should not have gone to the store and threatened to pass the photos along to police.

I (felt) great. I didnt have to wait for the police … I got the fear right into this guy, Benson told the CBC.

Over the past month or so, Albertans, along with the rest of Canada, have been bound by rules restricting what was recently normal behaviour, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People are urged not to leave their home unless necessary, keep two metres away from others, no large gatherings, and more — some of which have been legislated, others are left as guidelines.

So what happens when we see someone breaking those rules?

Over the past three weeks, Alberta Health Services has received over 10,000 complaints to its COVID-19 hotline, where people can report on fellow neighbours if they think people are not following the COVID-19 safety guidelines.

The grievances, which can be submitted through an online form on the AHS website or if you cannot submit a complaint online, by phoning in, range from fitness centres that didnt close to individuals who werent self-isolating and people who were otherwise flouting the rules. But is reporting on neighbours necessary or could it wade into dangerous vigilantism?

Alberta at Noon spoke with three guests and fielded plenty of calls from listeners on Wednesday to weigh in on the divisive hotline introduced by the province.

Dont turn into a nation of snitches, Gerson urges

When it comes to reasons why youre calling in, Macleans contributing editor Jen Gerson warns people should pause before telling on their neighbours.

In an opinion piece she wrote for Macleans headlined Dont let coronavirus turn us into a nation of snitches, Gerson calls the establishment of snitch lines disturbing.

She says they have dark historical antecedent and are widely used in totalitarian and authoritarian states as a means of social control.

When you turn neighbour against neighbour and you create a nation of snitch, or a culture of snitching, essentially what you do is youre turning everyday people into police, youre turning us all into each others oppressors, Gerson said.

Gerson said its also possible people will use the hotline vindictively.

We just know historically that these things are abused by people, Gerson said.

How are you as an individual to know for sure whether or not the thing that youre seeing is breaking the rules? Gerson said.

She added there are circumstances that would warrant a call to the AHS hotline, such as someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and who is not abiding by self-quarantine measures.

But Gerson recommends people take an internal inventory, and question whether a decision to use the hotline is to help control the spread of COVID-19 or if its out of fear or anger.

If youre just snitching because you see someone in a park and that makes you angry, then youre not really snitching to save anyones life, youre just snitching to manage your own fear and frustration, she said.

Try and approach your frustrations from a place of compassion as opposed from a place of condemnation and spite.

Possibility for vigilantism without rule-breaker hotline

Melanee Thomas, a political scientist and associate professor at the University of Calgary, along with her colleague, Lisa Lambert, authored a CBC opinion piece that applies previous research to COVID-19.

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Melanee Thomas is an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. (David Bell/CBC)

In the piece, headlined A COVID-19 smackdown: why rule breakers need to be punished, Thomas explained, there are four types of people:

  • Those willing to follow the rules (willing participants).
  • Rational egoists who might break the rules to serve personal needs but can be persuaded to follow the rules especially if there are repercussions for not doing so.
  • Small group of altruists, who always do the right thing.
  • Punishers, who are willing to suffer themselves just to stick it to the egoists.

Thomas says unless we take into account all these motivations, the public policy response will be incomplete. She says on one hand, the egoists need negative reinforcements, like the possibility of being reported by a neighbour or a fine.

But on the other hand, theres a possibility for vigilantism In the absence of those hot lines, or the possibility that there would be another outlet that would be potentially more corrosive.

The thing that comes from this research thats really clear is that some people you simply cant persuade them to do the right thing, she said.

I would not dismiss the anger that people feel for that.… My point is that we would still need some outlets for people to be able to productively deal with that (frustration) because in the absence of (the hotline), I think it could potentially be much worse.

Individual circumstances are unknown

Caroline McDonald-Harker, a sociologist and associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Mount Royal University says most people are likely trying to act in the best way they know how in a situation that they have never experienced before.

But that reaction might vary from person to person, she added.

While some situations might warrant reporting to authorities, McDonald-Harker says to exercise compassion.

Everyone is reacting differently to being isolated at home and we dont know if someone is really struggling, she said.

We dont know if for them going for that one walk is what they need to avoid that final breaking point and many people do not follow some of these guidelines because they worry about things like their mental health and their well-being.

McDonald-Harker said directly chastising a person or reporting them to authorities creates division in society and it might not be productive. She explained some people might react by being defensive and closed off and less willing to listen to why the rules are in place.

Its better to have a conversation, you know, to try to understand one another. Try to be heard, said McDonald-Harker. Let the other person be heard and ask them, you know, how are you doing, are you struggling?

She added that speaking kindly to people about the regulations might have more of a positive impact and is more likely to get people on board with following these guidelines than just merely reporting them.

On the other hand, McDonald-Harker says to be aware of the potential of causing a dangerous conflict and if you feel unsafe to confront someone, to use the government hotline instead if necessary.

She says more clarity from the government on what people can and cant do amid the pandemic to help limit the spread of COVID-19 is needed.

If we really want to get people onboard, she said, we need to help them better understand and be informed that their individual actions affect community-wide health outcomes.


With files from Alberta@Noon. Join Alberta@Noon as it airs on CBC Radio One weekdays from 12-1 p.m. across the province, giving Albertans to talk to newsmakers and voice their opinions on the top stories of the day.

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