Part Two: Occupying Public Space

Yesterday, I outlined the tension between the City and the Occupy movement over the tent city erected in the City's public spaces. Although, municipal legislation prohibts the camp, it has, to this date, not been enforced. Why? Initially, no doubt, the thought was occupy Calgary would make their point and move on. No "strong arm of the law," means no trouble. Unfortunately, that tactic has proven to be wrong. The Occupy movement has no plans to move their campsite, even in the face of declining public support (petitions) and despite alternative offers of living space. It appears a Western style show-down is inevitable and the only question is how soon before the matter is before the Courts. 

What would happen if the matter did go before the Courts? Two cases, involving protest in two very different Canadian Cities, may help answer this question.

First we go to Ottawa. It is 1994 and a Peace Camp, to protest cruise missile testing, is erected on the lawn of the Parliament building. Indeed, the protesters had a presence, in one form or another, in front of Parliament since 1983. An attempt to dismantle the camp led to various court actions. At the heart of the debate was the expressive quality of the protest: if the Peace Camp attempted to convey or did convey a meaning, then, Weisfeld the leader of the protest, could argue an infringement of s. 2(b) of the Charter, freedom of expression.

The Federal Court of Appeal agreed with Weisfeld: the structure, and the presence of other accouterments of the protest (brochures, pamphlets, signs, and the like), indicated there was a meaning conveyed by the Peace Camp itself. However, as discussed yesterday, the decision does not rest on a violation. An infringement of a right still requires a further analysis based on s. 1 of the Charter. Is this violation justified in a free and democratic society? Enter, the government to establish that indeed, it is, or the legislation restricting the right is invalid. The end result in Ottawa was a save by the government. On the s.1 analysis the removal of Weisfeld was justified. Exit the Peace Camp.

Fast forward fifteen years to Vancouver where the Falun Gong erected banners and a "make-shift shelter" in front of the Chinese Consulate, contrary to a City By-law. The City sought an injunction to remove the protest, which was granted. The Falun Gong appealed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal.

Following Weisfeld, the Court agreed there was a violation of s.2(b) as the structures had expressive content being "part and parcel" of the Falun Gong protest. That is where the similarities end. The BCCA did not find the bylaw saved under the s.1 analysis. In the Court's view, the prohibition did not minimally impair the legitimate right to engage in political protest; a cherished Charter value residing at the very core of our democracy. In a word, the by-law was over broad and captured legitimate forms of expression.

After that Canada-wide tour, we are now back in Calgary. What conclusions can we draw based on these other cases? Clearly, the occupy protest has an expressive quality which is protected by s.2(b) of the Charter. However, whether the City ordinance will be a justifiable intrusion on that right is questionable and dependent on a number of factors, including the type of evidence the municipality will proffer to justify the legislation.

Whatever the outcome, this much is clear, the protesters are here to stay for the near future. Indeed, no Canadian City has successfully evicted the movement. In the end, when the dust is settled and the shoot-out is over, this gun-fight might just be a draw.