A proposed Manitoba law that would restrict the rights of protesters will likely face a court challenge, Indigenous and environmental groups say.

A proposed Manitoba law that would restrict the rights of protesters will likely face a court challenge, Indigenous and environmental groups say.

On Monday, the Progressive Conservative government unveiled a bill that would allow owners or operators of "critical infrastructure" to apply to the Court of Queen’s Bench for an order to halt or limit protests.

Individuals who run afoul of the proposed law would face fines of up to $5,000 per day and/or jail time.

Bill 57 (The Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act) would apply not only to protests around highways and pipelines, but to food-processing and packing plants, hospitals and medical clinics, courthouses and waste disposal sites.

Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said Tuesday he believes the government was targeting Indigenous protests when it drafted the bill.

"It’s a strategy, obviously, to silence the voices and the views of First Nations people who have been excluded for a very long time from infrastructure strategy and investments in terms of our partnership on a government-to-government basis," Daniels said in an interview.

"Likely, we’ll be challenging it, taking this legislation to court," he said.

Premier Brian Pallister expressed frustration last year at the economic losses caused by countrywide protests in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who opposed a $6-billion natural gas pipeline project in northern B.C.

"How fair is our society when the most marginalized people are continuing to be intimidated by legislation like this?" Daniels said of Bill 57.

"I think it reflects on the premier’s lack of leadership in terms of trying to find a resolution to very valid concerns about infrastructure investments.

"First Nations haven’t been real partners. As a leader, he should be calling for a better structured relationship."

The environmental movement also feels singled out by the proposed legislation.

"It sounds like the government wants to tell us where, how and when we can protest. We won’t be able to protest unless we do it in the way that they want us to do it," said Silas Koulack, a member of the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition.

Koulack said the bill is undemocratic and an attack on citizens’ charter rights.

"I think that this needs to be challenged at every possible opportunity," he said.

The government appears to be setting its sights on climate activists, "as opposed to corporations who are actually doing damage to the environment," Koulack said.

"Who is the bad guy here?"

Striking workers might also be affected by the proposed legislation.

Asked for comment Tuesday, the Manitoba Federation of Labour said it is still studying the bill.

"We are currently reviewing it to determine how it might impact workers who take legal strike and job actions in the interests of their rights and their jobs," federation president Kevin Rebeck said in a statement to the Free Press.

Molly McCracken, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Manitoba office, said the bill "protects property and industry above the public interest."

Indigenous groups, environmental groups and organized labour would face a "cumbersome court process" in asserting their rights, she said.

Under Bill 57, a judge would have to be satisfied the infrastructure for which protection is sought qualifies as "critical," and is being interfered with to such an extent that an order is necessary to enable its safe and timely construction, use or operation.

The court could also designate specific areas at or near these sites where protesters would be allowed.

Justice Minister Cameron Friesen has said he believes the bill strikes "a good balance" between the right to protest and the need "to keep goods moving, to keep infrastructure open."

"We believe that this bill gets it right," he said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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