By Jensen, Randy on July 11, 2020.
Facing dissent on both right and the left with Charter challenges filed on Bill 1 and Bill 10 already this year, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Doug Schweitzer spoke to The Herald earlier this week to answer critics and state the government’s point of view.
Drafted in response to blockades of railways this past winter by groups supporting the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, imposed steeper fines and possible jail time for those who are deemed to be blocking, as the bill states, critical infrastructure.
Critics of the act say it is so broad in its wording that “critical infrastructure” is basically anything the government deems it to be -a union picketing in front of an employer’s building if that employer is deemed “critical,” a peaceful protest marching down a street, a convoy of farmers’ machines blocking roadways on their way to protest at the legislature -and clearly a violation of Albertans’ Charter rights.
Legal experts, union representatives and Indigenous groups have all spoken out against the overly broad reach of the bill, and earlier this year the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees launched a formal Charter challenge to have the act thrown out by the courts on the grounds it violates freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Schweitzer says unions and other groups opposed to Bill 1 are misstating the intention of the bill.
“I think they have completely missed the rationale and the reason for the bill,” says Schweitzer. “It doesn’t impact in any way, shape or form your ability to lawfully protest in Alberta. I don’t understand where that argument is coming from. You could lawfully protest before Bill 1, and you can lawfully protest today. You can come to the legislature grounds and protest for days on end, you are more than welcome to do so.
“What this bill goes after is people blockading critical infrastructure in Alberta,” he emphasizes. “People who want to stay on rail lines for days or weeks on end to really jeopardize our critical supply chains in our country.”
Schweitzer also defends the broader wording of the bill, and says he would expect police to exercise discretion in its application, keeping in mind the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act’s intent.
“You give me two lawyers in a room and they are going to give me two different opinions,” he says. “We have been very specific in how we did draft this bill with thoughtful commentary from our government members when we introduced the bill which will show if anyone looks to interpret the intent of this legislation through a challenge what this is designed to deal with. We also have to trust our law enforcement personnel to make sure they are using discretion properly in these instances. This bill is designed for (illegal) blockades so we can clear them out on day one, and we would expect law enforcement on the ground to use proper discretion in using the new authorities under Bill 1 of the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act.”
Schweitzer says he is quite comfortable with the balance the bill strikes between respecting the rights of citizens and the need to protect crucial transportation lines and other infrastructure vital to the economy.
“You can protest on a sidewalk, you can protest in a city park, you can protest at city hall – that is all allowed,” he says. “But what you can’t do is block a highway for days on end that would prohibit people from getting to work. You can’t block a railway for days on end that would prohibit goods being transported in Canada. You can’t blockade an only entrance to a facility that allows people to get to their jobs. That’s what you can’t do. That is what this is designed for: to ensure people can’t have illegal blockades in Alberta.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms launched its own Charter challenge of Bill 10, The Alberta Public Health (Emergency Powers) Amendment Act, earlier this year after the new act drastically increased potential fines for those caught in violation of public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave cabinet ministers new extraordinary powers to enact laws during a public health crisis without recalling the legislature.
Critics pointed out federal Conservatives and other parties had opposed just such powers being given to federal cabinet ministers in the Trudeau government at the time, calling it an unconstitutional attempted power grab.
Facing a largely united opposition in a minority government, the Liberals eventually backed down from attempting to pass such legislation.
The right-leaning Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms found Alberta’s Bill 10 a significant enough overreach into individual liberties to launch a formal Charter challenge, calling the legislation “an opportunistic way to take power and pass laws without checks and balances.”
Schweitzer says Bill 10 was an attempt to update 100-year-old public health legislation to bring it up to date to meet the challenges of contemporary times. His government has since referred the legislation to an all-party committee to make recommendations on potential changes.
“What we are doing now is actually having an all-party committee of the legislature review with legislation,” he says, “and we are going to be bringing in people to give them advice on how the legislation will be designed going forward to make sure it has the right balance built into that act.”
Schweitzer says his government has been transparent in its application of the bill and has used it sparingly to date.
“Every opportunity we’ve had we have come to the legislature to seek approval of the different steps,” he states, “including putting regulations in place around a lot of those Ministerial Orders that maybe can stick around longer as we transition out of emergency now into hopefully a more normal environment.”
When asked if he would be open to rescinding the bill once the current public health crisis passes, Schweitzer says he will wait for the report from the all-party committee before making any determinations.
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