Around 20 demonstrators set up a blockade on a CN Rail line west of Edmonton. (Craig Ryan/CBC)
Violators could face fines up to $25,000 and six months in jail
To some, it’s a bill that will enforce the rule of law, protect public safety and stop protesters from harming the economy.
To others, the Alberta government’s Bill 1 is an affront to democratic rights, an authoritarian overreach and a threat to Indigenous Peoples’ way of life.
The controversial Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, Premier Jason Kenney’s signature legislation to start the current session, passed third reading in the legislature on Thursday.
Government house leader Jason Nixon hopes it will receive the lieutenant-governor’s royal assent Friday, immediately making it law.
Introduced in February, the bill allows hefty penalties against any person or company found to have blocked, damaged or entered without reason any “essential infrastructure.”
The list of possible sites is lengthy and includes pipelines, rail lines, highways, oil sites, telecommunications equipment, radio towers, electrical lines, dams, farms and more, on public or private land.
Violators can be fined up to $25,000, sentenced to six months in jail, or both. Corporations that break the law can be fined up to $200,000. Each day they block or damage a site is considered a new offence.
Kenney introduced the legislation against the backdrop of protests across Canada, in which groups blockaded rail lines, commuter train routes and roadways in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the construction of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline through their territory in northern B.C.
“When we brought this in, it was at a time of turmoil in Canada,” Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said in the legislature Thursday. “We had lawlessness across this country, where critical infrastructure was being obstructed. That is simply unacceptable. Here in the province of Alberta we expect the rule of law to be upheld.”
A CN Rail line in west Edmonton was the site of one such blockade in February.
The blockades snarled the movement of goods and passengers across the country, prompting layoffs and concerns about the food supply.
MLAs call protesters ‘spoiled kids’
After a nearly three-month delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the bill returned to the legislature this week for debate.
United Conservative Party MLAs called the protesters “ecoterrorists” and “spoiled kids,” saying some participants joined blockades because they thought it was a cool thing to do with their friends and post about on social media.
Those characterizations make Alison McIntosh cringe. The Climate Justice Edmonton organizer said freezing on a winter’s day while being harassed by counter-protesters isn’t “fun.”
She said the politicians’ comments are demeaning and dismissive of protesters’ legitimate concerns about the environment and economic diversification.
“It shows a lot of disregard for people who are their constituents — the people they purport to be looking out for,” said McIntosh, 28. “And it really highlights that we’re not the ones they’re considering when they pass legislation like Bill 1.”
Although it’s hard to tell until pandemic public health restrictions ease, Bill 1 could substantially change grassroots protests in Alberta, McIntosh said.
The organization can’t afford to pay such penalties if protesters are convicted, she said.
“It’s really troubling, but we’re creative. We know that there’s ways we can get our message across,” she said.
David Khan, leader of the Alberta Liberal party and a constitutional and Indigenous rights lawyer, said Thursday the new law could interfere with Indigenous Peoples’ rights to hunt, fish or gather on traditional land.
He calls the law draconian, legally dubious and a piece of political theatre designed to trivialize the tensions between oil and gas development, Indigenous rights and the environment.
In addition to potentially running afoul of citizens’ rights to free expression and association, Khan thinks the law could jeopardize Alberta’s international reputation as an ethical and democratic source of oil.
When asked for comment on Thursday, the Assembly of First Nations pointed to a statement issued in February by Alberta Regional Chief Marlene Poitras urging the premier to withdraw the bill.
“Allowing the bill to pass will serve to erode individual rights, unfairly target Indigenous Peoples, and has no place in a democratic society,” she said at the time.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the broadness of the law could allow the government to potentially shut down political demonstrations at the legislature or interfere with a strike picket line.
He said the federation will launch a constitutional challenge.
“The UCP is trying to frame Bill 1 as a patriotic defence of our oil and gas industry,” he said Thursday. “But if you’re patriotic, this is actually the last piece of legislation you should be supporting because it is fundamentally undemocratic.”
NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley attempted to introduce amendments to Bill 1 this week, which were voted down by the United Conservative Party.
Government says it supports legal protest
The Opposition NDP also raised concerns the bill is too far reaching.
The party’s legal analysis found the language is so broad, it could be interpreted to mean that just being on public land or walking down a highway or next to a rail line could be illegal, justice critic Kathleen Ganley said in the legislature Thursday.
Such strict application of the law could be especially problematic given the large fines allowed, she said.
Central Peace-Notley UCP MLA Todd Loewen said in the legislature her concerns were “ridiculous.”
The high fines are designed to help perpetrators understand the drastic economic consequences of interfering with industries, he said.
Nixon said stopping protests or demonstrations is not their goal.
“You have a right to protest and express yourself in democracy and this government will always fight to make sure that happens,” he said.
“You do not have a right while you’re protesting to stopping trains from moving and products from getting to market, causing companies to go bankrupt, or to have to suspend or fire or layoff employees because your products can’t get to market.”