October 30, 1998
"...as Long as I am Speaker"
The day after his daughter's school appeared on the list of those to be closed because of Harris government policies, Toronto Action for Social Change member Matthew Behrens faced arrest if he took his 10-year-old to the provincial legislature to protest the move. Behrens, along with four other non-violent activists, had been banned from the legislative grounds and the Whitney Block following a demonstration October 1 to mark the third anniversary of the 21.6% cut to social assistance, a cut linked to the deaths of homeless people in Ontario.
That ban was reaffirmed by House Speaker Chris Stockwell in a phone conversation with Behrens today. The house speaker said the ban&endash;also against fellow protesters Sandra Lang, Father Bob Holmes, mandy hiscocks, and Don Johnston&endash;would stand as long as he was Speaker. Stockwell expressed no qualms that basic constitutional rights were being trampled upon, and assured Behrens that all would be arrested and charged if they set foot on Queen's Park grounds.
At the October 1 demonstration, a small amount of water-soluble stage blood was poured on one of the arches of Queen's Park to symbolize that the Harris government has blood on its hands for policies which have dramatically increased hunger, homelessness, and death on the streets.
Interestingly, all the demonstrators were informed by a legislative representative, Ernie Beals, that they could leave the premises shortly after the blood pouring, with no charges threatened if protesters left when asked to do so. This, along with the fact that o criminal charges were subsequently laid, seems to show that the nature of the "damage" must have been fairly minor.
Refusing to leave, as they wished to honour the victims of the cuts, the protesters were then served with trespass tickets and letters banning them from Queen's Park. Protesters known to legislative security from previous demonstrations were handed forms with their names already written on them, even though these names were not offered by the protesters. Two arrestees not known to security, and who refused to give their names, did not receive the ban and bar letters. The message was clear: exercise your democratic right to protest on an ongoing basis, and you will have that right removed.
One of those arrested, Father Holmes, was not involved in the blood pouring, but was holding a banner reading, ironically: "Ontario Violating Human Rights: United Nations Wants to Know Why."
After the incident, TASC wrote to Stockwell to protest the ban, reminding him of the symbolic importance of Queen's Park as a place for citizens to protest government policies. Indeed, Stockwell himself last year met with TASC members to assert his guarantee that he would always be available to facilitate protests at the legislature.
Today, however, Stockwell angrily asserted that the right to demonstrate should be subjugated to the fact that taxpayers had to foot the bill to clean up the water-soluble stage blood. While it is likely the cleanup cost was no more than $50 (hosing down some brick doesn't run into the millions), Stockwell insisted the protesters had gone beyond the pale of reasonable dissent.
Behrens pointed out that the protest which allegedly "defaced" government property was necessary to illustrate the damage caused by the Harris government cuts. Mr. Stockwell obviously was more outraged about a small amount of symbolic blood on the building than about the deaths of homeless people caused by policies emanating from that building.
Behrens offered to send a copy of the Constitution to Stockwell, but the speaker insisted he already had a dozen copies. "He didn't say which countries those constitutions come from, but if there is one marked 'Canada,' we hope he'll refer to that section right near the front that guarantees everyone the freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom to peacefully assemble. But Stockwell seems intent on playing the Chretien Game of Rights for APEC Dictators and people with money, not for dissenters."
Stockwell refused to budge during the conversation, even though it was pointed out that a provincial court had upheld the right of protesters to engage in such activity. In a ruling handed down in February, 1997&endash;in a case involving 16 TASC members arrested for planting zucchinis, Jerusalem artichokes and other vegetables at Queen's Park anti-hunger protests&endash;Justice Paul Bentley remarked such protests "should not only be allowed, but encouraged."
In addition, 7 TASC members charged with trespassing in an identical blood-pouring incident at Queen's Park in January 1996 were not banned from Queen's Park and were subsequently acquitted of all charges in provincial court.
"Stockwell assured me he would fight to the death for our right to express our point of view, while in the same breath he upheld the ban. In the end, we'll have to challenge this ban publicly in order to safeguard everyone's rights. This will result in arrests, charges, and court time, which is a far more expensive use of taxpayers' dollars than throwing some soap and water on bricks."
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