With the ongoing discussion of the Century Condos project, the letter writing campaign residents have taken up and the upcoming “open house” meeting on March 27th, we thought it might be an apt opportunity to explore a matter of a higher order… our Rights and Freedoms in Canada.
The Canadian Constitution, in particular the Charter of Rights of Freedoms ensures that those in Canada have certain protections and rights. For this exercise, we want to look at the “Fundamental Freedoms” as guaranteed by the Charter:
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.
If you want to explore your federally protected rights and freedoms in more detail, you can read the entire Charter section of the Constitution at: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/Const/page-15.html
But for the sake of brevity and relativity, we will discuss subsection (b) which can be generally summarized as the “Freedom of Expression”. This very fundamental freedom was front and center recently with the NPCA v. Ed Smith frivolous court case. In his disposition of the matter, the learned Justice dealt a very serious blow to a municipal government’s belief in being able to gag or dissuade citizen opposition and opinion in “our beloved Dominion”.
Now, how does this apply to the average citizen or resident who wants to express their support and opinions on civic matters? The short answer is “speak your mind” and let your elected officials know how you feel on matters at any time you please. In an open and democratic country such as Canada, you are free to contact your elected officials at any time and it’s part of their social contract to welcome and accept any public input.
Certainly, that does not mean that they are obliged to follow the will of the people but if they hope to return to their seat in the next election, it is probably best practice to heavily weigh the opinions of those who elected them as their representative. While there may be prescribed times and forums which let the public speak to issues, the right to put matters to your elected representatives directly are not confined to those forums, rather they can be done with a degree of reasonableness at any time.
In consideration of the controversy of the proposed “Century Condos” it has come to our attention that some of our elected representatives feel that it may be premature for residents to write their opinion to them. Given that the developer and members of the currently seated Council have publicly opined on the project, already more than a year and a half in the making, it would be remiss to mislead the public that they should hold off on expressing their discontent with it while the development process marches on. On this matter, the public does not want to be a “a day late and a dollar short” on getting their message out to Council.
From the Town of Grimby’s By-Law 07-81 (link here):
A BYLAW TO GOVERN THE PROCEEDINGS OF COUNCIL LOCAL BOARD AND COMMITTEE MEETINGS
All petitions, applications and communications intended to be presented to the Council shall be written legibly typewritten or printed on paper shall be addressed to the Mayor and Council of the Town of Grimsby and shall be signed by at least one person
The upcoming “open house” meeting on March 27th at Town Hall should be one of the more interesting ones in recent years, as people are quite passionate about Grimsby’s heritage and how the downtown character should embrace and embody that. And let’s be frank, the proposal as it stands today, does little to enhance that character… rather it smothers it.
Emotions will be high at that meeting and we think that in accordance with your Charter rights and freedoms it is worthwhile to explore what may or may not be acceptable in the context of public meetings.
Recently McMaster University published a document on “Freedom of Expression, Protest and Dissent” at events, which can be found by clicking this link here. The document is an educating and interesting read, although not specific to a municipal setting, the overall goals and principles set an appropriate example for any institution. We found this section particularly interesting:
The following guidelines, which are not intended as an absolute or exhaustive list, suggest the limits of acceptable dissent:
a. Picketing; Literature – Picketing in an orderly way or distributing literature outside the meeting is acceptable so long as it does not impede access to the meeting. Distributing literature inside a meeting is acceptable before the meeting is called to order, or the speaker begins speaking, and after the meeting is adjourned or the speaker has finished speaking.
b. Silent or Symbolic Protest – Protesting noiselessly, such as by displaying a sign, wearing clothing, gesturing, or standing, is acceptable so long as the protest does not interfere with the audience’s view, or prevent the audience from paying attention to the speaker. Any use of signs, prolonged standing, or other activity likely to block the view of anyone in the audience should be confined to the back of the room.
c. Noise – Responding vocally to the speaker, spontaneously and temporarily, is generally acceptable, especially if reaction against the speaker is similar in kind and degree to reaction in their favour. Chanting, blowing horns or whistles, or making other sustained or repeated noise in a manner which substantially interferes with the speaker’s communication is not permitted, whether inside or outside the meeting.
d. Boycotting; Hosting an Alternative Event – Boycotting an event and providing a public explanation of the rationale for such a boycott is an acceptable form of protest. Similarly, hosting an alternative event to present a different perspective or viewpoint is acceptable.
Of particular note is section (c) on “noise”. We fully agree that blowing horns and whistles or outbursts in opposition are unacceptable in such a forum, but it is evident that a “spontaneous” and temporary response to a speaker vocally (ie.”hear hear”) or with applause is well within reason when you agree with their message and don’t impede the speaker. These expressions are commonplace in the Parliament of Canada and our Provincial Legislature.
At numerous past Town meetings when the public applauds certain speakers, the heads of Council or Committees have remarked to the audience that they “are not at a sporting event” and should refrain from applause or similar supportive actions. While it may be true that a public meeting is not a sporting competition, applauding someone whether you are in agreement or merely as a courtesy is a socially acceptable expression that shall not be infringed. If you appreciate the speaker or the message, then exercise your freedom to express support (or dissent) in an appropriate manner.
In summary, we live in a free and open society that has enshrined our right and freedom to expression in the highest law of the land, the Canadian Constitution. If you have a message to express, you are free to express it with a degree of reasonableness… exercise that right when you feel it is appropriate and not when it is too late.