A Closer Look at Alberta’s Bill 1

Through the early months of 2020, demonstrations erupting in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in B.C resulted in blockades shutting down the majority of Canada’s rail network. In response, at least one province has taken legislative action to render these types of protests unlawful.

Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government tabled Bill 1 in February 2020. Also known as the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, the law prohibits protest on essential infrastructure, or to aid, direct, or counsel someone to interfere with the use of essential infrastructure, whether publicly or privately owned. Infrastructure covered by Bill 1 would include private industrial projects such as mines and railways, but the wording is broad enough to include public property such as roads or even sidewalks. Due to the vagueness and timing of this law, many legal experts are worried about its implications.

Source: National Post, Photo By Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/File

There is concern that the law is so broad that it encompasses behaviour protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Because of the language, peaceful protests that interfere with the operation of a public infrastructure project would be in violation of this law – a potential breach of the right to free assembly. Bill 1 is also far-reaching in that a violation is committed by those who aid or otherwise support a protest interfering with key infrastructure without direct participation. Essentially, this defines individuals organizing or simply providing supplies to these protests being as culpable as those taking part. This feature of Bill 1 groups supporters and participators of protest into the same bucket, and is a concerning representation of the low tolerance that the UCP has for interference with key infrastructure and its development.

The timing of this legislation has many suspicious that it is a dubious attempt by the UCP government to silence Indigenous voices on the issue of industrial project development. Indeed, the law would limit treaty rights in the case of infrastructure that runs through treaty land. Furthermore, there is the issue that many Indigenous protests are in response to the very infrastructure sites that Bill 1 seeks to protect, such as the ongoing Wet’suwet’en opposition to Coastal Gaslink’s pipeline. By permitting the removal and arrest of protestors under Bill 1, the Albertan legislature is cracking down hard on a specific kind of dissent against industrial development that is voiced by Indigenous Nations.

Bill 1 was put forward by Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer. Characterizing the national rail blockades as “anarchy”, Schweitzer has pushed for other provinces to adopt similar laws that crackdown on protests inflicting economic damage on the same level. This advocacy is primarily out of self-preservation: opposition and objective legal scholars alike have already pointed out that Bill 1 may tread on the exclusive jurisdiction held by the federal government over criminal law. By encouraging other provinces to adopt laws similar to Bill 1, it is possible Schweitzer is hoping to galvanize inter-provincial support in order to make the case for federal legislation before the law can be struck down through court challenges at the provincial level.

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer

Although Bill 1 has already received royal assent, there remains a great deal to be resolved. The Alberta Union of Public Employees was the first group to file a court challenge against the law, but it is expected many more will follow. The eventual rulings on the constitutional validity of Bill 1 will have a huge effect on the limits of provincial government power; some hairy questions will surface. Ultimately, it must be asked whether any infringement on Canadian rights and freedoms, particularly the unique set of collective rights held by Indigenous Nations, is excusable in the name of protecting economic interests, and whether protests blocking critical infrastructure are a form of peaceful political expression, or anarchy.


Sources

  1. Porter Robbins, C. (2020, July 02). Alberta bill aimed at blockades becomes law amid debate over legal issues. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/alberta/article-as-protests-flare-up-alberta-bill-aimed-at-stymieing-demonstration/
  2. Protecting critical infrastructure. (n.d.). Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.alberta.ca/protecting-critical-infrastructure.aspx
  3. Rally at Alberta Legislature to protest passing of controversial Bill 1 | CBC News. (2020, July 11). Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/alberta-bill-1-rally-1.5646637
  4. Cardinal, J. (2020, June 25). Everything you need to know about Alberta’s Bill 1. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.albertanativenews.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-albertas-bill-1/
  5. Joannou, A. (2020, June 24). Alberta’s largest public sector union taking government to court over Bill 1, claiming it violates Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://edmontonjournal.com/news/politics/aupe-bill-1-alberta-charter