Vancouver park board to vote on whether to allow anti-HST petitions in community centres
Members of the Vancouver park board are deeply divided over an upcoming motion to invite registered anti–HST canvassers into the lobbies of community centres.
Vision Vancouver commissioner Raj Hundal told the Georgia Straight by phone that he will introduce the motion at a meeting of the board on Monday (June 7) because he feels it’s important to give Vancouverites an opportunity to voice their concerns about the harmonized sales tax.
“It’s important to note that the HST will have a significant impact for our seniors, our youth, and those who are most vulnerable in society,” Hundal said. “If they want to get a gym pass or if they want to enroll in an aerobics class, it will have a significant impact.”
Green party commissioner Stuart Mackinnon, on the other hand, told the Straight by phone that he questions the motivate behind the motion. “I think it’s more about government-bashing than altruism,” he said. “I think it’s put forward by people who have political ambitions for themselves. They’re claiming it’s because the HST is going to increase fees for people, yet this board voted unanimously for a four-percent increase [to recreational-services fees] across the board last November. If people were genuinely concerned about people’s ability to pay, then why did they vote for a four-percent increase in our fees?”
When the HST takes effect on July 1, it will add a seven-percent provincial sales tax to the five-percent GST already charged on memberships, tickets, home renovations, restaurant meals, and many other goods and services. The preamble to Hundal’s motion points out that the park board has written a letter to the B.C. Recreation and Parks Association expressing concerns that “the HST may lead to decreased public use of recreation services”. Hundal mentioned that the three other Vision commissioners and COPE commissioner Loretta Woodcock will support the motion, which would grant access to the community-centre lobbies for the duration of the anti–HST initiative, being led by former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm.
“I think there needs to be uniformity across the community centres on this issue,” Hundal said.
Mackinnon and NPA commissioner Ian Robertson told the Straight in separate phone interviews that they will vote against the motion. Both have acknowledged that they signed the anti–HST petition, but they said that the lobbies of community centres aren’t appropriate locations for “partisan political activity”.
“I’m really concerned about setting a precedent for this particular group over other groups that are also very well deserving,” Robertson said. “Currently, the board’s policy is left up to the community-centre associations.”
He noted that these associations charge nonprofit groups a fee for access to rooms in their buildings. “So I would rather have a debate around the policy, rather than making it HST–specific,” Robertson added.
Mackinnon characterized Hundal’s motion as “risky and unfair”. In the Green commissioner’s view, the risk comes from allowing one particular group to collect signatures, and he says it’s unfair to prohibit others from engaging in similar activities.
Community centres are jointly operated by the park board and local associations. A park board policy states that “press conferences, rallies, protests and events of a political or commercial nature” are “not compatible with the Park Board’s mandate and thus are not generally approved to be held on parkland”. The distribution of written materials and solicitation are prohibited on park board property without permission.
This has raised concerns at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which wrote a letter to park board chair Aaron Jasper on May 20. In a phone interview with the Straight, BCCLA executive director David Eby said that he’s pleased the anti–HST campaigners will be allowed to collect signatures in community centres. But he added that he’s concerned that this access is only being granted to a group that the board supports. He said that all groups, including those on both sides of the abortion debate, have a constitutional right to talk about their political views, hand out leaflets, and collect signatures in community-centre lobbies, as long as they don’t interfere with the operation of the facility.
“The [Supreme] court [of Canada] has said as soon as you open up the platform for expression, you need to make it available equally,” Eby said.