CIVICUS

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Canada

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Last updated on 12.02.2019 at 15:06

Canada-Overview

Canada’s vibrant civil society benefits from laws protecting the freedom to assemble peacefully and the freedom of expression. Recently however, new laws, including the Anti-Terrorism Act, have threatened to undermine those safeguards.

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Arrest of 14 people at a pipeline protest prompts national outrage

Arrest of 14 people at a pipeline protest prompts national outrage

Thousands of people took to the streets in multiple cities to protest the arrest of 14 demonstrators at a protest camp in British Columbia on 8th January 2019 over a proposed pipeline running through First Nations territory.

Peaceful Assembly

Thousands of people took to the streets in multiple cities to protest against the arrest of 14 demonstrators at a protest camp in British Columbia on 8th January 2019.The protesters had assembled to oppose a proposed pipeline running through First Nations territory when they were arrested. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they were enforcing a court injunction against members of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation who were blocking access to a pipeline construction site. In Vancouver, hundreds of people marched against the arrests, with some carrying signs with messages such as, “no pipelines on stolen lands” and “the climate is changing, why aren't we?.” About 200 protesters also delayed a speech by the prime minister in Kamloops and blocked traffic in Toronto and Vancouver as part of protest events dubbed, “solidarity slowdown”. In a related story, several pro-pipeline events took place in Alberta and Calgary. Organised by members of several unions and groups like Rally 4 Resources and Canada Action, proponents of the pipeline claim that large-scale energy products create jobs and support Canadian industry.

On 25th December 2018, at least 400 people gathered in downtown Toronto to show solidarity with anti-government protests in Sudan and called on the Canadian government to pressure the Sudanese government to end the violence against protesters. Holding signs and chanting “Free Sudan”, members of Canada’s Sudanese community called for the removal of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s long time president. One protesters said:

"We want our neighbours to contact members of parliament to demand our government condemn the ongoing killing in Sudan."

Demonstrations were also held in Edmonton, Alberta and at least one St. John’s resident in Newfoundland and Labrador conducted a hunger strike to draw attention to the people of Sudan.

In a separate incident, on 23rd January 2019, workers and their supporters rallied outside of General Motors Canada headquarters in Oshawa to protest the closing of a car factory. Unifor, the union representing the autoworkers, has staged multiple demonstrations in support of workers who will lose their jobs if the plant is closed. “For more than 100 years this Oshawa has built and supported General Motors. Today’s actions by Unifor members send the message that GM must reverse the decision to close the plant,” said the union’s president. Some workers carried signs that said, “Greedy Motors” and “Loyalty works both ways”.

January 2019 also saw a protest to demand the rights of women. As part of the international Women’s March thousands of people gathered in cities across the country in support of women’s rights. Women carried signs with messages like, “Support your sisters” and “Smashing the patriarchy is my cardio” in protests in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. The movement was started in the U.S. following President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017.

“We are here to give voice to women to stand up and speak out about things that are important to them.” said Women’s March Canada Executive Director Sara Bingham. 

Inspired by the protests in France, so-called “yellow vest” protests were held in multiple cities to address various issues like immigration, taxes and globalization. For example, in Hamilton, Ontario, yellow vest protesters and their supporters demonstrated outside of City Hall on 27th January 2019 as part of a rally against the country’s immigration policies. At least one counter-protester was arrested after a verbal argument with a yellow vest wearer became physical. In Cranbrook, British Columbia, people took to the streets wearing yellow vests to express their frustration with a United Nation’s agreement on migration that Canada recently signed. Protesters demanded that despite the agreement, Canada enforced its borders. 

On 17th January 2019 a judge ruled that an anti-abortion group was trespassing when it held “distasteful” demonstrations at an airport in Calgary. Members of Canadian Centre for Bio-ethical Reform had accused the airport of violating their rights when they were asked to leave because of their protests. The judge also banned the group from returning to Calgary International Airport. The group had staged multiple protests at the airport in the past and at least eight members had been arrested for trespassing, but those charges were eventually dismissed. According to news reports, the group uses images of “aborted foetuses” as part of their campaigns, and sees “victim photography as an educational tool”. 

Expression

On 8th January 2019, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police denied members of the media access to pipeline protest camps in British Columbia. Police blocked a road leading to the camps set up by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who were protesting a pipeline project that will be built on their territory. According to media outlets who were denied access, police said “they were barred because of safety concerns during the police operation and could be arrested and charged with obstruction if they tried to pass the checkpoint to do their jobs”. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the move:

 "Authorities in Canada should immediately end the arbitrary restrictions on journalists covering the police breakup of the pipeline protest...Journalists should be able to freely cover events of national importance, without fear of arrest."

A comedian is appealing a ruling that said his jokes about a boy living with disabilities were “discriminatory”. In 2016, the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Mike Ward had made discriminatory comments about Jeremy Gabriel’s disability over several years and had ordered him to pay $42,000 to Gabriel and his family. According to media reports, a Quebec court judge found that Ward’s jokes “violated Gabriel’s right to dignity, honor and reputation, as well as his right to equality and to be safe from discrimination”. A lawyer for the comedian agreed that the jokes were in bad taste but not worthy of being sanctioned. “In this particular case, if the judgement is maintained, no one will be able to dare to be a stand-up comic, because normally you make fun of things that are controversial — otherwise it’s not funny,” Ward’s attorney said.

Association

Freedom of association is generally respected. However, in recent years space for civil society organisations has been reduced, especially for CSOs working on human rights issues, which faced a loss of funding, loss of legal status and public denigration.

Freedom of association is generally respected. However, in recent years space for civil society organisations has been reduced, especially for CSOs working on human rights issues, which faced a loss of funding, loss of legal status and public denigration. Since the adoption of the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2015, civil society organisations, including many environmental groups and activists, fear that the government is now equipped to increase surveillance of their activities even further. Prior to the enactment of this law, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had already intensified its surveillance of environmental activists and passed that information on to energy companies. Activists are also worried by the heightened risk of criminal prosecution against them due to the broad powers granted by the legislation.

Peaceful Assembly in Canada

People in Canada have the right to demonstrate peacefully and are mostly able to do so. However, legislation and several incidents on the streets in recent years have limited this right for some groups.

People in Canada have the right to demonstrate peacefully and are mostly able to do so.However, legislation and several incidents on the streets in recent years have limited this right for some groups. For example, having experienced widespread student protests, the province of Quebec enacted Bill 78 that created broad and vague requirements to exercise the right to protest. Due to civil society pressure, that law has now been repealed. During the 2012 student fee protests, police used excessive force to disperse demonstrators. According to a civil society report, over 3500 people were arrested and one student was injured after a stun grenade detonated close to his face. Clashes between police and protestors have become more frequent, leading to the arrest of protestors and instances of excessive use of force by the police.


Expression in Canada

Canada has strong freedom of expression protections. The media and journalists are able to convey a diverse range of views, normally without repercussions.

Canada has strong freedom of expression protections. The media and journalists are able to convey a diverse range of views, normally without repercussions. However, civil society organisations have documented several instances in which journalists covering protests were targeted for arrest, assault or detention by the police. Although criminal charges for defamatory libel are rare, defamation remains a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. Canadian civil society has also expressed its fear that the 2015 Anti-terrorism Act could undermine freedom of expression protections, due to its vague language and broad powers that could create a chilling effect on free speech.