What do the Wet’suwet’en First Nations blockades have to do with Alberta’s Budget 2020?
Everything. The blockades are the rationale (flimsy as it is) for Bill 1, Critical Infrastructure Defence Act which the Kenney government will use to quell protests when Albertans experience the full impact of Kenney’s budget cuts.
Is this far fetched? No, let me connect the dots.
Budget 2020 is a flawed budget relying on ridiculously optimistic forecasts for employment rates, GDP growth and (my personal favourite) the West Texas Intermediate crude price which is supposed to magically rise from $47 to $58 in time to save the UCP government from disaster.
The 2019 budget kicked off the first round of public sector cuts; Budget 2020 will go deeper and if the economy fails to reach Mr Kenney’s unrealistic goals, he’ll keep cutting until we get there or die trying.
The list of public sector employees impacted by Mr Kenney’s fantasy budget includes doctors, nurses, teachers, people working across the government and at its arms length agencies. The list of impacted Albertans includes children, seniors, students, the sick, the vulnerable, the homeless; well, everyone.
And “everyone” is no longer prepared to sit around saying “this is great, more please”.
Last week over 13,000 Albertans attended a rally in Edmonton, yesterday thousands more protested in Calgary. Ms Soapbox and her husband attended the Calgary rally. They were struck by two things: (1) the crowd was diverse: young and old, professionals and trades people, union and non-union, public sector and private sector, and (2) the crowd was defiant, fearless…and willing to talk about a General Strike.
Mr Kenney knows the spectacle of a General Strike will do nothing for his image as a wise leader steering the province through tough economic times. Quite the opposite, it will make him look like a bumbling fool.
So, Mr Kenney latched on to the Wet’suwet’en blockades to justify legislation he said will strengthen penalties against protesters who jeopardize public safety and damage the economy by blocking critical public infrastructure.
Notwithstanding its title, Bill 1 does not address critical infrastructure, it focuses on essential infrastructure which is defined to include infrastructure relating to pipelines, coal and oil facilities, oil sands, highways, railways, hydro projects, public utilities, electrical and gas utilities, dams and radio infrastructure and the land on which the infrastructure is located and any land used in connection with such infrastructure.
While it’s easy to see how these things would support Alberta’s economy, the same can not be said for section 1(1)(a)(xvi) which is a basket clause that gives the government carte blanche to declare any “building, structure, device or other thing prescribed by the regulations” to be “essential infrastructure”, regardless of who owns or occupies it.
What’s curious about the basket clause is it doesn’t require the building, structure, device or thing to have any nexus with the economy. Mr Kenney could declare my house to be essential infrastructure if he wanted to.
Given the basket clause’s lack of connection to the economy, anything including parks, university quads, city streets, and the steps of the Legislature, could be declared essential infrastructure by an order in council (ie. Cabinet meeting behind closed doors).
Is there a reasonable explanation for the carte blanche basket clause?
Well, let’s see what the government has said about it so far.
Mr Panda, the minister of Infrastructure, says private infrastructure is just as important, maybe more important, than public infrastructure. He says protestors behaving responsibly and exercising their democratic right to protest peacefully will be fine, however, “if we see any more disturbances or…harm to Albertans” he won’t hesitate to amend Bill 1. Note: Mr Panda didn’t tell us why the carte blanche basket clause exists but he did give us a clue about the threshold for government intervention—it’s dropped from “harm” to “disturbance”, whatever that means.
Given that all that’s required to contravene Bill 1 is to set foot on, obstruct or damage “essential infrastructure” which can be defined by the government as anything, and given that anyone contravening Bill 1 is subject to arrest without a warrant, and if convicted, will face fines and/or incarceration, the fact that Bill 1 can be amended by Cabinet behind closed doors is a huge red flag for anyone who cherishes democracy.
Freedom of assembly
Constitutional lawyers Jennifer Klinck and Madelaine Mackenzie recently published an op ed about the Wet’suwet’en resistance to Coastal GasLink. Their comments are equally applicable here.
They said freedom of assembly is one of our fundamental constitutional rights. “It gives marginalized groups a way to make themselves heard.” Furthermore, to respect freedom of peaceful assembly, “governments and the community must tolerate a degree of disruption, because it is the disruptive nature of public protests that amplifies their messages.” Where people choose to protest may be significant specifically because it’s publicly inconvenient. And the police’s response must be proportionate and “seek to uphold, not suppress, peaceful assembly.”
So guess what, Albertans will continue to exercise their constitutional freedom of assembly, even if Mr Kenney scoops up every square inch of public and private land and targets every single instance of disruption, because we do not live in a police state.
Not yet, not ever.