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Press Coverage

Limits on public protests turfed

Proposed bylaw regulated City Hall demonstrations


Jason Markusoff, Calgary Herald


Published: Thursday, February 04, 2010

A nti-war labour activists and Christian conservatives rarely agree on anything, but they were making the same impassioned pleas Wednesday. And Calgary aldermen proudly defended their right to protest.

A council committee turfed a proposed bylaw that would have limited public protests and events on the plaza and sidewalks outside City Hall.

"It seems like we’re trying to kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer," Ald. Jim Stevenson said.

City officials were attempting to fill a gap in rules that didn’t allow protests on City Hall property but were unenforceable, corporate properties director Sharon Purvis told a council committee Wednesday.

She said they were trying to create a bylaw that established an "appropriate" place to protest but still allowed city workers and passersby to get around, and not hold the city liable for damage.

Aldermen ordered city administration to overhaul the draft bylaw, and explain how it would respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"We brought the bylaw forward, and we hoped it met that balance," Purvis said after the bylaw’s rejection. "And what we’ve heard today is that there’s more work to be done on that balance."

The new bylaw would have created a designated "permit zone" on a small concrete rectangle in front of the downtown building where citizens could demonstrate or hold events if they applied for a permit five days in advance. Large impromptu protests or ones on the sidewalk ringing the municipal complex would have not been sanctioned, although they wouldn’t necessarily be broken up.

"The seat of city government should be a place that enhances democracy, not a place that stifles democracy," said Peggy Askin, former president of the Calgary and District Labour Council. She derided the notion of "protest pens."

Artur Pawlowski, whose street church regularly holds events outside City Hall, suggested further crackdowns under the proposed bylaw would lead to more legal battles. He recently won a court fight against the city over his use of loudspeakers on municipal property.

"The right to freedom of thought and expression means that if I express my opinion, you also have the right to be offended," said Jim Blake of Concerned Christians Canada.

Purvis acknowledged the bylaw would have made it easier to demonstrate on a sidewalk across the street from City Hall.

"(We need) just a common sense bylaw," Ald. Ric McIver said.

"The inside of the building is where the business is done, and I think you can restrict people’s access there. The outside of the building is very much a public gathering place. The public needs to gather and needs to be able to express themselves."

In late 2008, the plaza hosted more than 3,000 people protesting a Liberal-led coalition poised to install Stephane Dion as prime minister. The plaza has also been the site of large protests against the Iraq war.

The civic complex has hosted 80 events in the past two years. Two of those led to arrests, a senior city security official said.

Ald. Druh Farrell expressed concern that protests against gay rights might threaten city employees who are gay. Askin, the labour group’s former president, replied that governments shouldn’t use security concerns to curtail rights and can’t choose whose speech is protected.

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