As COVID-19 cases rise and ICUs near capacity in Winnipeg, the spotlight is on the Pallister government’s response.

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This article was published 1/12/2020 (297 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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As COVID-19 cases rise and ICUs near capacity in Winnipeg, the spotlight is on the Pallister government’s response. 

But while the public is focused on the worsening second wave of COVID-19, the Pallister government has quietly introduced a series of bills, including the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act. Though this bill has largely gone unnoticed over the past two weeks since it was introduced to the legislature, it poses serious threats to Manitobans’ rights to peaceful protest. 

To make matters worse, the bill was introduced under a layer of secrecy using a legislative mechanism that does not allow the opposition or the public to view the text of the bill until before the second reading.  

The proposed Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act would make it an offence to obstruct what is deemed "critical" infrastructure, such as roads and railways. The details are unclear, but we can guess what the bill might contain based on a similar bill that was passed in Alberta earlier this year. Alberta’s Bill 1, The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, similarly makes it a provincial offence to interfere with "essential" infrastructure, with fines up to $25,000 and six months in jail. 

What constitutes "essential" infrastructure in Bill 1, however, is broad and ambiguous. In addition to roads and railways, public and private trails, driveways, and sidewalks are also included in the definition of "essential" infrastructure. It is essentially a Swiss Army knife for the Alberta government to deem any infrastructure "essential" at any time. 

Alberta’s Bill 1 has faced widespread opposition by unions, First Nations, legal experts, and the public. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the province’s largest public sector union, is taking its government to court over the bill. They find that the bill violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as it "breaches freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association". As it is written, the legislation could punish union workers for leafleting or picketing outside their workplace, even on a public sidewalk or driveway. 

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) also condemned Bill 1, saying it will "erode individual rights, unfairly target Indigenous Peoples, and has no place in a democratic society." The bill was first introduced following the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests that swept the country last winter, and there are concerns that it will be invoked disproportionately against Indigenous communities and land protectors. 

Legal experts have also found that Bill 1 is designed as an intimidation tactic, and violates at least five fundamental rights and freedoms. People holding peaceful protests, such as vigils, pickets, or rallies, on public roads or walkways could be subject to immediate arrest. 

Like Bill 1, the proposed Manitoba Protection of Critical Infrastructure Bill would infringe on the right to peaceful protest that is central to our democracy. If the legislation is similar to that in Alberta, as we expect it to be, participants of events such as the recent Stella’s employees’ picket, Wet’suwet’en and Mi’kmaq solidarity rallies and marches, the Tataskweyak blockade for community safety during COVID-19, and the Winnipeg school bus drivers’ strike and picket, could all potentially be subject to fines or arrest. 

As we are seeing increasing stress on workers during this public health crisis, amidst the fallout of years of brutal austerity, the importance of peaceful protest is clearer than ever. 

If it passes, this bill has the potential to infringe on the rights of people across Manitoba, while protecting the rights of corporations and the wealthy. Amidst the tragedy and chaos of the current moment, it is a critical time to speak up against this bill to ensure that it is not passed. Sign this petition and write to your MLA calling for the rejection of the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act.

Laura Cameron is a community organizer and a member of the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition.