Editorial

There’s a bit of ancient Chinese folk wisdom that warns, “Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from the forehead of a friend.” More simply stated, the caution being offered is against employing unnecessarily forceful means to address a relatively minor problem.

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This article was published 17/3/2021 (217 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a bit of ancient Chinese folk wisdom that warns, "Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from the forehead of a friend." More simply stated, the caution being offered is against employing unnecessarily forceful means to address a relatively minor problem.

In introducing Bill 57, the long-shrouded Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act, the government of Premier Brian Pallister has demonstrated that when it comes to dealing with peaceful but disruptive protests that might impede transport or access, it’s inclined to eschew the metaphorical hatchet in favour of a full-sized axe.

Bill 57, if passed, would allow the owners or operators of "critical infrastructure" — which could describe construction projects, pipeline developments, agriculture and food-production facilities, financial or health-care institutions, courthouses and prisons, government facilities, oil, gas and electricity projects and structure and other designated categories — to apply to Court of Queen’s Bench for an order to stop or limit protests.

Should the court be satisfied the infrastructure in question qualifies as "critical" and protesters’ interference threatens safe and timely construction, use or operation, those who disobey the court’s orders would face daily fines of up to $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for corporations (individuals could also face up to 30 days in jail).

While Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said this week the proposed legislation is not in reaction to any specific incidents but rather is intended to be "proactive," the likely inspiration for Bill 57 isn’t difficult to find: the numerous costly blockades across Canada in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to a natural gas pipeline project in British Columbia.

Those protests inspired Alberta’s Bill 1, a similarly worded "critical infrastructure" law that came into effect last June; Mr. Pallister was also vocal last year in his criticism of, and frustration at, the blockades and the economic harm they inflicted, and then-justice minister Cliff Cullen instructed his department to review Alberta’s legislation to assess whether something similar could be brought forward here.

The revealed contents of Bill 57 drew predictable reaction from opposition parties, environmental groups, organized labour and Indigenous leadership, over the proposed legislation’s perceived overreach and discriminatory intent.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister

"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," said Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, who added that the new law would inevitably be challenged in court — as has been the case in relation to the Alberta law since its passage.

And therein lies the rub of Bill 57 — it’s a bill that seeks to render unlawful behaviour whose legal limits are already defined in criminal law, yet its own constitutionality is bound to be subject to a lengthy and expensive series of legal challenges as soon as it is proclaimed.

One is left wondering what Mr. Pallister is seeking to achieve with a proposed bill whose principal attribute is the heavy-handed manner with which it would seek to pre-empt public displays of disagreement. Sound public policy, or just another settled grudge?

Ironically, there’s certainly enough in Bill 57 to inspire a public protest. There is one aspect of the hatchet/fly/head proverb that doesn’t quite apply, however: the sharp-edged legislation is most decidedly overkill, but the heads toward which the government intends to swing its figurative weight would hardly be inclined to consider themselves Mr. Pallister’s friends.