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Changes to Vancouver Charter may Infringe on Right to Protest

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Issue: 58 Section: Canadian News Geography: Canada Vancouver Topics: 2010 Olympics

February 4, 2009

Changes to Vancouver Charter may Infringe on Right to Protest

Bylaw fines to rise from $50 to $10,000 in lead-up to 2010

by Rebecca TeBrake

A protester holds a placard challenging the notion of an "illegal" sign at Vancouver City Hall. Photo: Miné Salkin

VANCOUVER – Vancouver City Council and citizens clashed on January 22 over changes to the Vancouver Charter. The proposed changes grant the city more power to remove illegal signage and bump up bylaw penalties to $10,000. Citizens and civic rights groups fear these changes will quash freedom of expression in the lead up to, and during, the Olympic Games.

The council chamber was unusually full. Concerned residents held up anti-Olympics banners they feared could be deemed illegal if the changes to the Charter are adopted.

Vancouverites at the meeting called to mind the 1997 protests of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference, where UBC law student Craig Jones was arrested for refusing to put down his sign that read “Free Speech.”

Council approved 16 amendments that strengthen the city’s regulatory power on signage, advertising and street use. The changes hinge on provincial government approval.

“I am sure you all know that there are groups in Vancouver that plan to protest in 2010,” said Chris Shaw, spokesperson for 2010 Watch. “We want to be assured that we will have our civil liberties respected and that there will be nothing done to infringe on those civil liberties or our ability to bring our case before the public.”

Jesse Lobdell from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association followed Shaw, reading a letter written to Council by the executive director of B.C. Civil Liberties Association, David Eby.

The letter asks city council to ensure the proposed changes are in alignment with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section two of the Charter guarantees Canadians “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression," "freedom of peaceful assembly,” and “freedom of association.”

The amendments will allow the city to regulate street performances, remove signs from private property with limited notice, remove graffiti without notice and raise maximum fines for a bylaw offense from $50 to $10,000.

Vague wording in the amendment, such as “illegal signage,” was a source of concern for some citizens at the meeting.

Shaw warned that an interpretation of these amendments could deem protesting, street theatre, or wearing an anti-Olympics button an illegal activity. He asked for an immediate addition to the list of Charter changes.

“Add clause 17 that states none of the above applies to protests, demonstrations, political picketing or political theatre,” said Shaw. “Then we will all know where we stand.”

“Our specific objective around [signage] is concerning the commercialization of public space. There is no intent over the issues we’ve identified to control or prevent freedom of speech,” said Paul Henderson, Director of Olympic and Paralympic operations for the city.

Henderson also said the wording of the Charter would be clarified by the province. Once approved, the specific bylaws will be drafted by city staff and presented to Council.

“Those specific bylaws will be very detailed,” said Henderson. “In developing those bylaws we will consider all the issues brought forward by the public and the issues brought forward by council.”

The city also promised to consult the public when the bylaws are drafted. Shaw is skeptical; he said he almost missed the opportunity to voice his concerns at the council meeting because the city failed to adequately publicize the discussion. He fears the same could happen when it comes time to debate the new bylaws.

At the same meeting, city council voted to authorize the Director of Finance to explore new ways to finance the imperiled Olympic Village, including the establishment of a revolving bank facility and issuing debentures.

Formerly a resident of Burlington, Ontario, Rebecca TeBrake now lives in Vancouver where she is studying journalism at the University of British Columbia.

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