Olympic critic says Vancouver Charter changes threaten civil liberties

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      Vancouver’s gold-medal holder in Olympic critique has lambasted the Vision Vancouver-led city council for approving “an extremely contentious bylaw that is going to come back and bite them in the ass in 2010”.

      Chris Shaw, a UBC neuroscientist, was referring to council’s vote today (January 22) to approve 16 amendments to the Vancouver Charter.

      Shaw, along with other speakers who attended the council meeting, is very concerned about the charter amendments’ impact on civil liberties. The amendments have to be approved by the B.C. legislature to become law.

      The last of the amendments would provide that “the city may remove illegal signs from real property with limited notice, and may charge the owner for the cost of such removal”, according to the staff report recommending the changes.

      Shaw, author of last year’s Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games (New Society Publishers), said that police emboldened by such legislation could kick down the doors of the Georgia Straight next year if his book is displayed openly in a window facing West Broadway.

      “In principle, they can decide that falls under this ”˜illegal signs’ and they can come and knock on your door and say, ”˜I need you to take that book out of your window, and here is a $10,000 fine because I had to knock on your door.’ That’s what the bylaw says,” Shaw said by phone. “”˜Then if I have to come back here, you’re going to get another $10,000 fine.’ This privilege that we have given ourselves doesn’t expire when the Olympics go home; this is going to be here forever. We didn’t put a sunset clause in it.”

      COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth told the Straight she tried to push for a sunset clause, but had no support from any councillors and so her proposed amendment did not even reach a vote.

      “I thought there were might be others who might support me,” Woodsworth said after today’s meeting. “I was quite shocked that I didn’t get more support.”

      Woodsworth added she worries about the possible “social legacy” being created as civil liberties get put at risk. She said she first saw the appendix of staff’s Olympic wish list late in the day on January 20.

      “I was concerned that these regulations were really general and wide-reaching and that they would have long-term impact on the city and possible impacts that we might not want if we want to pursue the right to speech and the right to protest,” she said.

      Fellow COPE councillor David Cadman said he wasn’t concerned about “another APEC” happening, referring to the RCMP’s pepper-spraying of protesters at the 1997 summit in Vancouver.

      “That [amendment] is to deal with illegal advertising, not someone putting a sign in their window,” Cadman said by phone, adding that he is of the opinion the city needs greater protection from “ambush marketing”.

      He said he didn’t foresee sign confiscations being “as prevalent as people may think”.

      “Yes it will happen—no two ways about it,” Cadman said. “I don’t see the bylaw enforcement officers and/or the police storming in there and saying, ”˜You have used the Olympic symbols with an X through it. Take that down. You don’t have the right to use the Olympic symbol.’”

      Shaw was not happy with this analysis.

      “I am not prepared to accept his feel-good kittens-and-rainbows message,” Shaw said of the three-term councillor. “I would like to see something on paper that guarantees my freedom of expression in 2010. I think a lot of people share that concern, so having these feel-good messages that ”˜We don’t really intend it to be for you, but we are going to draft it so broadly that it could be for you,’ it is meaningless—meaningless in terms of protecting civil liberties.”

      Added Shaw: “All they had to do was put a clause 17 that would have said, ”˜Look, none of this applies to protest or demonstrations or peaceful expressions of dissent or the advocacy for any number of causes that might be impacted by the Olympics.’ That’s all it would have had to have said.”

      This last point made Vision councillor Andrea Reimer—who voted with all Vision councillors in favour of the amendments—see red.

      “Chris Shaw is not a lawyer, and my strong sense of his arguments today is that he didn’t have a full understanding of the requests that we were making, nor the province’s power in that regard,” Reimer said via cellphone. “He at one point suggested that the city pass legislation of some sort to ensure civil liberties are looked after. We don’t have that constitution authority. Even if we did, nothing that we pass could exceed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is a very high document. So, the issue around the protection of civil liberties is around how laws are interpreted and implemented, and that’s where the civil liberties roundtable becomes a very critical piece.”

      At today’s meeting, Vision councillor Geoff Meggs moved a motion, which passed, asking that the city “urge VANOC and its Olympic partners to immediately establish a public consultation to fulfill the commitment under Section D, regarding Civil Liberties and Public Safety, in the 2010 Inclusive Inner City Commitment Statement”.

      Shaw’s final point was that this move was mere smoke and mirrors.

      “I think it is just there as a little paper trail so they can say later, ”˜Well, we tried to get them to be accountable,’” Shaw said.




      Jan 23, 2009 at 10:24pm

      Chris Shaw isn't a lawyer, but David Eby is, and he calls the proposed amendments "dangerous" in another Straight story. Does Reimer have a comment on that?

      Colour me unimpressed.