Tag Archives: dissent

La lutte continue: Vancouver pulls pay-for-democracy bylaw, but a new one’s coming. (cue ominous music?)

(For context, see the earlier article that discusses Vision Vancouver’s proposed plan to charge $1,200 for protests that involve ‘structures’ – such as tables or signs)

Earlier today, the Vancouver Mayor’s office posted an announcement on twitter that quite a few people were likely happy to hear: the proposed bylaw that would have charged people in Vancouver $200 plus a $1000 deposit to have a protest where a literature table or even a sign stuck in the ground was being sent back “to the drawing board.”

In the linked news article, Mayor Gregor Robertson posits that there ought not be fees attached to the right to have a protest with a sign, and that a better ‘balance’ can be found.

Sounds good, so far, right?

Well, a whole new bylaw is supposed to come back from the city by Wednesday.  And it will be telling how much will change – that will tell us what’s more important to Vision Vancouver.

If you go back to my original piece on this issue, you’ll see that there were a ton of restrictions that the city wanted to place on protests with structures.  They could only be up from 8am to 8pm. Only in certain parts of the city. (That particular restriction would have effectively completely banned the original protest that gave rise to all of this, the Falun Gong protest on southern Granville Street outside the Chinese consulate).  The restrictions went on and on and on.

Effectively, it looked like getting the right to protest would have been almost as complicated as a building permit.  All to have a tent. Or a sign stuck in the ground.

Well, Gregor’s promised a new bylaw.  With a new balance, a new approach.

Will it still have onerous restrictions, but drop the fees? Will it still ban night-time vigils? Restrict tents to keep off the rain to 2m by 1m in size? Only one side of a block, to a maximum of 30 out of 60 days?  It’s quite possible.

I have a perhaps modest proposal – the bylaw could be quite simple.  Protests are permitted, as is our constitutional right.  And if a protest does construct a structure that is somehow or in some way dangerous to public safety, the city can attend the site, and tell the protest organizers what needs to be done to fix the risk.

At a lot of protests, there are rally marshals.  They organize the route.  Keep people from getting lost.  There’s often a police liaison who speaks with the police.  Treat protest in Vancouver this way.  Fix the problems as they arise, not create so many hoops that people outraged at the most recent stupid thing their government has done risk financial ruin or jail time because they didn’t fill out the 24th form or submit an architectural drawing of the folding table they’re putting the sound-system on.

But what’s more important in this respect: keeping the Falun Gong practitioners out of Kerrisdale, appeasing the Chinese consulate, Vision Vancouver saving face, or free speech?

As I said before, democracy doesn’t have a price tag.  But it also doesn’t happen only between 8am to 8pm, one side of a block, and only 30 out of 60 days.

Charging $1,200 to democratically assemble, Vision Vancouver looks to China for advice on (anti) free speech laws.

Vancouver - a free speech zone? Not unless you cough up the cash.

I wish that this was a satirical piece.

In sort of a break from the ever-so-boring federal election coverage that we’ve been bringing you lately, the City of Vancouver and its maybe-progressive governing party Vision Vancouver and former NDP MLA and now VanCity mayor (and Gordon Campbell endorser) Gregor Robertson have (almost) decided that any protests that have a literature table, tent, or even sign at them might well be charged $1,200 – a fee charged to citizens in order to exercise their (supposedly) constitutionally guaranteed right to assembly.

Sadly, it looks like the progressive Mayor Gregor Robertson is showing us what a Harper majority government would probably do to our “democratic rights.”

Even better, they’re apparently taking advice from the government of China on the bylaw.

Yes, China.

The country that safeguarded free speech in Tian’anmen Square.

See, for example, The Tank Man.

The country that has disappeared Ai Weiwei (艾未未) simply because he did try to exercise his (not guaranteed) free speech.

Ai Weiwei, currently 'disappeared' for having an opinion.

First, a bit of history. Those of you familiar with the city on the edge of Lotus Land may well remember the constant presence of Falun Gong protestors and their signs depicting the horrendous atrocities the Chinese government visits upon practitioners outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, which itself is situated in a residential zone. No one, as far as I am aware, is suggesting that the Falun Gong protest was violent or unruly. In fact, most Falun Gong practitioners I’ve known are calm, and quiet, and they almost, well, flow with the qi.

Well, one day the city decided to ban these protestors. They used a bylaw to prohibit any “structure” (the Falun Gong signs) on public property (the edge of the sidewalk) and evict the entirely peaceful protesters. Sue Zhang, one of the organizers, rightfully challenged the bylaw in court, and after a series of cases, the BC Court of Appeal struck down the bylaw, saying that blanket prohibitions were unconstitutionally restrictive on free speech rights and rights of assembly.

That being said, there’s a court order in place at the moment, preventing the Falun Gong protest from re-establishing itself, to allow the City to bring its bylaw to shape in order to pass constitutional muster.  Effective April 19, the court would strike down the current law which bans any structure.

The court did also say that some regulation could make sense – owing to a clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows “reasonable” restrictions “as may be justified in a free and democratic society.” Following direction from the courts, I suppose, the city directed staff to prepare a report with suggestions on what could be done.  In an amazing tour de force, the report has come back, recommending that the city charge $1,200 for a permit to erect ‘structures’ on public property – ie, signs, tents, tables.  You know, structures.

Let’s put this in plain and simple terms: charging $1,200 to have a table, or a sign, or a tent at a protest limits free speech. It restricts freedom of assembly to those who can afford it.  There should not be a fee on democracy.

This is a ridiculous concept.  One, a lot of protests and rallies involve a table for literature or refreshments. $1,200 permit charge.  Two, a lot of protests and rallies involve a tent to keep rain off of speakers and sound system equipment. $1,200 permit charge.  And it rains a lot in Vancouver.  If you happen to stick a sign into the ground, $1,200 charge.  Imagine that you put up an installation art piece. $1,200 permit charge.

The Falun Gong protestors set up a series of signs and a rain shelter on city property directly outside the Chinese Consulate.  They couldn’t put the signs on the consulate property – that would be trespassing.  They used public property for their signs. The same public property we use every day to walk on, to protest on, to rally on.  However, they put up signs.  Here, the city is trying to ban protests that occur on public property unless you can afford to pay a $1,200 fee for a permit to actually hold a protest this way.

Aside from the fact that this bylaw would restrict protests to those who could afford it, it is absolutely insane that the City of Vancouver consulted the Chinese government about the bylaw, while it merely “advised” the Falun Gong protesters that this would be happening. What did the City ask the Chinese government? If this went far enough? Seriously, guys, asking the Chinese government about free speech is like asking the Tea Party on how we can ensure a woman’s right to choose.

The City won’t tell anyone what they discussed with China, bastion of free speech, because they signed a “confidential agreement” about the consultations.

The city says that this wouldn’t restrict sandwich boards for stores. That’s covered under other bylaws.  In fact, according to the city, this proposed bylaw only impacts “non-commercial installations.”  So, not only do I need to pay one thousand two hundred dollars to put up a table and show off my “PROTECT FREE SPEECH” signs – the store down the way can put up its signs and/or kiosks hawking whatever it wants for free?

Whose free speech is being protected there?

The message box emerging from Vancouver council appears to be as such: currently, the city bylaw bans all structures on public property.  No tables, tents, or structures used in a political protest are allowed under the current Vancouver bylaw.  According to the city, the proposed bylaw would actually enable people to do things that have been illegal all along.  Gracious move by the city to save us?

No.  The BC Court of Appeal said that the prohibition was illegal and it will strike down the prohibition as of April 19.  This talking point will be moot in exactly 11 days.  It’s also incredibly disingenuous.  Yes, the current (as it exists) bylaw bans ALL structures on city property.  But yes – the BC Court of Appeal has said that’s illegal.  So, Council, you’re not rescuing people from the vagaries of an unfair law – the BC Court of Appeal has already done that.

A quote that contextualizes this: “None of these changes will make anything more illegal than they already are.” (See the City video stream of the meeting in question.)

Could the same be said on April 2oth? Effective April 19, the bylaw that currently prohibits all structures is struck down, it ceases to exist.  All structures would be legal.  The Vision Vancouver councillors can get away with saying that this is a proposed bylaw that would enable people to protest, that would legalize protest, until April 19th.  After that, they’re making a lot of protest illegal.  Of course, any time you add opportunities when no opportunities legally exist, you’re adding.  But when everything’s legal? Then you’re restricting.

Instead, the City of Vancouver is proposing that the following restrictions will apply to any protest that need a table, or a tent, or a free-standing sign:

  • Structures would only be permitted from 8:00AM to 8:00PM
  • There must be people attending the structure
  • Structures would not be permitted in areas of the city that are zoned residential or that have residential units on the ground floor
  • There could only be one permit per individual at a time.
  • There could only be one permit per ‘face’ (side) of a block.
  • You wouldn’t be able to get a permit for a kiosk and a sign and a tent.
  • Your permit would only be valid for 30 days, but you could only get a permit for an area for 30 out of 60 days. So, only one month out of every two. And once a protest has been permitted the same area couldn’t see a protest for another 30 days.
  • The size could not be larger than 2.1 meters high, 2 meters wide, and 1 meter deep.
  • It must be at least 5 meters from a building entry or exit, 5 meters from a bus stop, 5 meters from street corners, and 0.5 meters from a curb.  A structure could not also cover more than 25% of the front of a building.

Interestingly, the area in which the Chinese consulate is located is in a residential area, so, of course, no protests with structures would be permitted there.  Anywhere else where you can meet these proposed restrictions (that the City of Vancouver would likely prefer us to read as “enabling conditions”) you can:

  • Put down a $1,000 deposit
  • Pay a $200 license fee
  • Pay $25 for any renewals

And then you can put your sign in the ground.

The staff person presenting the report at the council committee meeting was very specific in saying that this wouldn’t prohibit protests where everyone held their own signs and banners, of course. This is because the city only bans structures at the moment, and this is what the court case centres on – Vancouver can’t constitutionally put a blanket ban on structures used for political expression.  I also think that this restriction is in danger of being ableist – I’ve seen people with disabilities bringing signs and banners that are free-standing to protests.  Do they need permits?

But what exactly is a structure? There was an interesting back and forth between Councillor Woodsworth and the city staff person presenting the report.

Q: Is it a structure if I stick a sign in the ground?
A: Yes.
Q: What if I put a table on the side of the road and set up a tent around it?
A: Yes.

In Vancouver, it rains.  And most protests in Vancouver I’ve been to have a tent in case of that, to keep the sound system dry. $1,200 fee, only in certain areas.  Plus, no bigger than 2m by 1m.  You also won’t be able to set up a petition table at the back of the protest, without that fee and that permit. And only in certain areas.

Yesterday, when news of this first emerged, I tweeted my outrage.  Pretty much instantaneously, the @VisionVancouver twitter account ‘followed’ (subscribed) to my twitter account.  Seeing that, I immediately asked them if they had a statement. No reply. I asked COPE, another party at Vancouver council, if they had a statement. They responded pretty much instantly with a link to their statement.

Today, after about 24 hours of badgering, the @VisionVancouver twitter account sent me a tweet with a link to their statement: “Vancouver is a free speech zone, help us keep it that way.”

One, that’s a pretty close interpretation of the COPE campaign during the Olympics that had t-shirts that read “I am a free speech zone.”  Nice move, Vision Vancouver.

Two, Vision’s statement is kind of sad.  It states that Vancouver is a free speech zone.  Right, it is, under the constitution anywhere in Canada is.  The statement says that the City is working to protect free speech, and that the party “will not accept changes to the law that restrict these critical social expressions.”

Here’s a key point, Vision Vancouver: no changes to the bylaw could restrict free speech any more than they already do. This is part of your message box – the bylaw right now simply prohibits structures as part of a protest, full stop.  That’s why the Court of Appeal said it was unconstitutional.  Very technically speaking, any changes you make – even if it were to only permit structures on the south east corner of the Art Gallery lot with a $1 million permit fee – would have the effect of “enabling” free speech MORE than is already the case.

With the logic that they won’t restrict free speech any more than it is already restricted, Vision could do a lot, seeing as how free speech with any structures are completely banned at the moment – until April 19.

Would the same logic hold up after that, when the law is struck down by the courts? Hard to say.

But again – charging $1,200 for any protest that would need a table isn’t democracy. Democracy doesn’t require an admissions charge.

Councillor Andrea Reimer, the chair of the committee that this report came to, tweeted me telling me that protest has never cost anything, and that putting up structures has been 100% illegal.

Councillor Reimer and I had quite a civilized twitter chat, though she suggests that there’s a lot of misinformation and creative editing going on.  I’ve given you sources for every claim I’ve made in this piece, and while all opinion pieces contain flair, I don’t think I’m going overboard.  Ms Reimer even graciously acknowledged that her electioneering tent was on the street and 100% illegal.

I’ve offered Ms Reimer the opportunity to add comments, corrections, and even her own viewpoint on this article, which I will post directly at the bottom of this piece , without any editing.  I’d invite any other Vancouver councillor to do the same, so that everyone in Vancouver can see what their elected representatives are thinking.

Now, Vision Vancouver is asking for public input on the proposed bylaw.  I suggest that we all take the moment to send them an email with our thoughts, or send them a twitter message.  According to their statement, you can email them at info@votevision.ca.

When you do so, remember:

  • The official message is that any changes to the bylaws would be an improvement, because the current bylaw (which is unconstitutional) prohibits all structures.  However, the quasi-emancipatory changes proposed by the City include a $1,200 fee for permission to have a structure – anything from a sign in the ground to a table to a tent – at a protest.  Democracy doesn’t have an admissions fee.
  • All structures for political protests would be perfectly legal after April 19th – after April 19th, these proposed bylaw changes would be restricting speech that had been made free by the courts.
  • These restrictions only apply to non-commercial messages, because other bylaws already permit commercial (ie advertising, etc.) signs under specific conditions.
  • No function of democracy should have a price tag attached to it or restrictions as to when or where democracy can be practiced.

Sadly, these kind of restrictions are nowhere near new.  The sardonic ‘twist’ on “free speech zones” comes from the protest pens that proliferated in the United States, which restrict protests at important events to small areas, often caged-in.  In Vancouver during the Olympics, there were a number of free speech zones. In Toronto, during the G20, the free speech zone was the Queen’s Park lawn, which the police charged and arrested dozens, sometimes rather violently, like in the case of Adam Nobody.  These large events have had crackdowns supported by provincial and federal governments – BC Liberals and federal Conservatives.  Why would Vision Vancouver – a supposedly progressive party – be parroting the Conservatives?  And why should the Chinese government – not exactly noted for its defense of free speech or democratic rights – have a confidential input session with the city, while residents only get 11 days as the Council rushes to approve the bylaw before April 19th?

This isn’t just a municipal issue. It’s our right to free speech, with a table for our signs and petitions, or a tent for the rain.

Democracy doesn’t have a price tag.  Certainly not one that is $1,200.

Here’s where I’ll add any corrections, clarifications, or comments from any Vancouver City Councillor who wants to clear up any ‘misinformation’ or ‘creative editing,’ and I’ll post them without any editing on my part.  Post your comments in the comments below, or email me directly at kbh@yorku.ca.

I’m voting for the least offensive candidate to try and avoid the most offensive government. I wish.

All right everyone, we’ve got an election.  Let’s get our democracy on?

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll roll out of bed on May 2 (though I’ll likely sleep in), trudge over to the local school or church basement, wait in line behind everyone, argue with the poll clerk that I actually live where I claim to live (Ontario doesn’t issue identification cards with addresses that aren’t drivers’ licenses, so I’ll have to try to prove my identity with a credit card bill, passport, and a smile), I’ll be handed a little piece of paper with names on it and directed to a folded piece of cardboard with a tiny pencil behind it and I’ll have the chance to vote.

In all likelihood, while I’ll have a limited number of choices as to who I can gift with my little pencil-scratched ‘x’, I’ll likely end up voting for the least offensive candidate in order to try and avoid the most offensive government.  It’s the Canadian way!

I suppose my biggest difference here, as compared to my colleague Jasmin, is that I’ll likely be arsed enough to get out of bed and trudge over to the ‘democracy’-fulfillment station.  That being said, I agree with the vast majority of what he writes when he says that the election is “a spectacle provided for the masses, a circus.”

So… if I agree with the vast majority of what he writes, why would I be arsed enough to get up on May 2 and actually vote?  Who knows.  Maybe I’m hopelessly optimistic.  Maybe I’m deluded.  But I’ll probably be voting.

I just won’t be overly happy with what I’m doing.  But I’ll still likely be doing it.

Why? Because I really don’t want Stephen Harper to get a majority government, because I’m genuinely concerned about the havoc he could wreak with an unchecked hold on power.  Because a Harper majority government could crack down on our already circumscribed ‘freedoms’ and ‘rights’ even more than they already have.  And because this would severely challenge everyone’s ability to organize and create a better world.

Sure, Harper is a boogeyman (full of boogers, I might add) and Ignatieff is the leader of the party that did most of what Harper is currently doing, but they did it with a red tinge instead of the blues.  Layton, who looks like Lenin but certainly doesn’t act like him, can promise the world (but not socialism) because he certainly won’t be prime minister, and Gilles Duceppe (maintenant et toujours mon politicien préféré!) can act as both a comic relief and actually cutting critique of the whole charade at the same time.

But this doesn’t change the fact that the election will have very real outcomes that impact each and every one of us, whether we like the system or not.  Admittedly, these outcomes will happen no matter who is in charge, but with any luck, they may not be as bad with Harper out of power and someone else – by default, Ignatieff, I suppose – in.  Though I’m relatively confident that’s just wishful thinking.  But I’m reluctant to simply not vote even though I know the system is broken and won’t get better any time soon.

So why is Jasmin not voting? He says:

There are three very simple reasons why I will not be voting, and they are as follows:
1. Our electoral system is broken, as such, my vote is meaningless.
2. The parties running are inept and/or disingenuous.
3. Continued electoral turnout on the part of voters is making matters worse, rather than better.

Right, right, and mostly right.  So why vote?  Because, in the system that we’re currently cursed with, that is, representative parliamentary democracy, the election is effectively the only time that we officially get to participate in democracy in the formal Canadian system.  And while the system is broken, mostly because the parties are inept and disingenuous, it’s what we’re stuck with for now.

For now.

We can be – and we should be – working towards a better system.  Towards a better democracy.  Quite obviously, as we saw in British Columbia during the single-transferable-vote referendum, and in Ontario during their referendum on electoral reform, the system that we currently have is structured in such a way as to prevent this kind of change.  The parties themselves oppose voting reform that would try to fix the worst problems of the electoral system.  The parties themselves are broken, reduced from articulating demands and engaging people in governance to cultivating and grouping together acolytes who thoughtlessly repeat party lines and foam at the mouth at the sight of someone wearing another team’s colours.  And while I’ll tentatively agree that turning out to vote does legitimize the system that we’re cursed with, I worry that if all of us who actually care about progressive ideas stayed home and didn’t vote that we’d get the worst possible outcome.  But sure, like the Marxists say, maybe we just need to progress through even more bitter times before we get to that whole revolution bit…

Okay. We’re not going to be getting a better system through simple voting and electoral and parliamentary charades.  But we’re absolutely not going to be getting there if we ignore the only fleeting moments of democracy that most of the people around us know, whether or not they like, approve of, or participate in them.

Most people reading this website will acknowledge that elections aren’t the only instances of actually existing democracy and politics in the world.  A lot of people here are actively involved in their unions, in community groups, in student associations, in trying to make the world a better place.  All of that is politics.  All of that is democracy. of the opinion that democracy ought to be how we collectively discuss and decide how we’ll live together and work towards the future.

But this isn’t how everyone else sees these things.  A lot of people out there see politics as starting on March 25th and stopping on May 2nd.  Democracy is the process of scratching that little ‘x’ next to the least offensive candidate.  This is their lived experience.  And I question how much we’re contributing to the betterment of things when we dismiss this.

How many times have we gone to a protest rally and had handfuls of people on the sidewalks wonder why we’re doing what we’re doing?  Wondering why we don’t join a party and change things from the inside?  Sure, it’s pointless to actually do that – but maybe we can seize the opportunity of a general election as momentum towards building the communities of change that we want to see.  People may not be more engaged in politics at the moment, but they’re at least aware that something is happening.

Might not we make Jamsin’s three-pointed argument about protest politics in Canadian democracy? They very rarely make any changes for the better, though they certainly try their most.  Often, under state-sponsored and often precipitated conditions of ‘violence’ they legitimate state repression.  They’re often insular.  And continued efforts to block a street and smash a window sometimes – though certainly not always – seem to alienate more and more of the population from people who protest for very good and very important reasons.

I’ll take Jasmin’s point about needing to build communities of change.  That is what we need to be doing.  We cannot and should not be focusing  on reactionary politics.  We need to be creating the world that we wish to see.  But how do we do this?  Just as I think that politics is something that encompasses all aspects of collectively self-determining how we live together and go forward, I think that activism can encompass the full range of what we might think is political – from elections to anything.

Voting and actually effective political organizing and activism are not exclusive activities.  We can do both.  And perhaps we should.  I can understand the logic behind boycotting elections because they’re relatively pointless, they mere change the colour of the people who rule us, and so on – but I don’t think that it’s hypocritical of me to desire substantive and progressive change in the political realities of where I live and to vote.

So, on May 2nd, I’ll trudge over to the church basement, credit card bill and passport in hand, smile on face, and I’ll go behind that little bit of folded cardboard and I’ll take that little pencil and I’ll scratch and ‘x’ on the ballot paper.

I’ll vote for the least offensive candidate in my riding, in the hopes of avoiding the most offensive government.

And I’ll continue working with my friends, my colleagues, and my comrades in activism, towards social change, towards political progress.

Because voting will only take 15 minutes of my day.  And even though I live in a ‘safe’ riding, there are people out there who don’t.  And if enough of us scratch that little ‘x’, then maybe we won’t have to spend months getting back to where we are now in terms of ‘rights’ and so forth. Or spend months defending the next right that Harper wants to take away from us – even though Iggy may well do the same thing.  Regardless, fifteen minutes to vote isn’t much, and if it gives me more time to work for change, maybe it’s better.  And if you’re particularly inclined, you can always spoil or reject your ballot, using the system to make a statement.

And then we can all go out and keep building communities for change.  Sure, we’ve all got a raging election on.  But it’s not our only political moment, nor is it a monolithic instance of democracy.  And it’s not mutually exclusive with other forms of activism.

Another, better, fairer, more just world is needed. And we need to work for it, with it, with each other, in as many ways as we can.