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Don’t run with the wrong crowd

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Rob Shaw: BC’s proposed bubble zone protest law has some interesting wrinkles even peaceful protesters should be aware of.

Anti-vaxxers will still be allowed to protest inside BC’s new “bubble zones” protecting schools and hospitals, as long as their signs and actions don’t intimidate workers or block entrances.

But what constitutes an intimidating sign?

It’s just one of the many questions and wrinkles canvassed as MLAs debated the new bubble zone legislation this week.

“Signs that had been seen at some of these demonstrations include ‘Nurses are committing genocide.’ It’s our feeling that that could reasonably be expected to cause a person concern for their physical or mental safety,” said Attorney General David Eby during committee stage debate.

“Or ‘Vaccinating your children is child abuse’ — that this would also potentially be captured by this definition as an example of some of the real-life messages being delivered at the entrances of these facilities to health care workers and parents.”

People with those types of signs, or shouting threats, or spitting at people, or blocking entrances to hospitals and schools, could face fines up to $2,000 and six months in jail, under the new legislation.

It sets a 20-metre “bubble zone” around the property lines of health care sites and K-12 schools where the behaviour is unacceptable.

But if a member of the tinfoil hat brigade can hold it together and protest about vaccines in a respectful (and I use the term loosely) way, they’ll still be allowed to do so within the bubble zone.

The legislation is in response to anti-vaccination demonstrators who blocked emergency rooms and ambulances at hospitals across BC in September, as well as anti-vaxxers who entered an elementary school in Salmon Arm and forced kids into a lockdown.

Yet it turns out the type of protest actually doesn’t matter for the new bubble zones.

“This bill is about behaviours,” said Eby. “What it is neutral on is what is the political motivation for you to do this.

“You’re anti-government public health measures? Okay. You have some other boutique issue that you care about, that you think making sick people wait to get into an emergency room is an effective tactic? Okay. It doesn’t matter.

“What matters for the police officer on the scene, what matters for the person trying to get into the hospital or the school — the student or the teacher — is that they are being intimidated, blocked or interfered with in those essential services.”

Or, put another way:

“The issue here is not that you’re screaming about COVID-19. The issue is that you’re screaming at a nurse or a teacher or a student. The issue isn’t that you’re blocking a door to draw attention to your concern about vaccines. The issue is that you’re blocking the door of an essential public service.”

Green leader Sonia Furstenau and BC Liberal MLA Mike de Jong did a thorough job questioning Eby about the intricacies and consequences of what would otherwise appear to be a straightforward bit of legislation.

For example, de Jong raised the question about whether a person with a sign “Smoking Kills” in the bubble zone outside a hospital would count as intimidation.

“There are probably signs inside the hospital that say: ‘Smoking Kills,’” replied Eby. “I don’t think that would cause a reasonable person concern.”

Then again, it’s also not up to the health care workers and teachers at these sites. It will be police who have ultimate discretion over whether a protest constitutes harassment, or whether it is peaceful and can exist within the bubble zone.

“One of the reasons why this is set up in this way is that maybe you’ve got a group of parents, they want to show up, and they say: ‘Well, we want better ventilation in the school’….They are holding signs that say ‘better ventilation’ or whatever and peacefully protesting,” said Eby. “They would still be able to do that within the access zone.”

Labour protests sanctioned by the Labour Relations Board are also exempt.

De Jong asked about whether peaceful protesters “with no nefarious purpose” could find themselves arrested and fined if a few bad apples from another protest group started hurling abuse outside a hospital at the same time.

Short answer: yes. Everyone within the 20 metre bubble zone outside a school or hospital is at risk of getting rounded up and thrown in jail once one whacko takes it too far.

“You need to get out of that access zone, because you are very much in jeopardy of a ticket or, potentially, arrest as well,” said Eby.

Furstenau focused on the “broad and vague” language about what is a protected facility, highlighting concerns by the BC Civil Liberties Association that the bill might be passed under the auspices of protecting health care workers from anti-vaxxers, but then “opens a sneaky door to morphing this into something similar to Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, which restricts protests near pipelines, highways, mines, farms and other industrial activities.”

The worry appeared to be that government might be giving itself the backdoor power to boot people 20 metres away from the TransMountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines, freeing those projects up from First Nations and environmental protesters who have at times held up construction.

Not so, said Eby, noting the definition of a facility was kept somewhat loose so it could apply to a mobile COVID testing site, a street nurse van or a mobile bus vaccination centre.

“Clearly the legislation is not talking about pipelines,” he said.

The bubble zone bill also gives cabinet the power to add other sites under its protection, but only if “there are services of public importance being delivered and that the COVID-19 pandemic has put strain on the people who are providing those services there,” said Eby.

Some, including myself, were hoping the government would extend the bubble to Remembrance Day protests, after anti-vaxxers in Kelowna crashed the ceremony and reduced some veterans to tears this year.

“You know, it’s a challenging thing to say, but it’s true: the bill really is not designed to respond to the Remembrance Day protest,” said Eby. “It is designed to protect public access to essential services, in the nature of health services, education services and so on.”

The bubble zone bill will pick up the support of the Opposition BC Liberals and BC Greens and pass unanimously in the house, likely next week.

With all the wrinkles and complications, de Jong said he takes “some comfort” in the fact the bill has a sunset clause of July 1, 2023.

After that, though, the hope is the COVID-19 situation will have died down enough that the province will no longer need a law to protect teachers, nurses, doctors and other workers from harassment at hospitals and schools.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com

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