Vancouver's latest effort to limit Falun Gong demonstrations in front of the Chinese consulate has resulted in a bylaw proposal that critics say would curtail all kinds of grassroots political protests, from anti-HST tables to advocates for the homeless who set up tents.
The recommended bylaw amendment would prohibit "any structure, object, substance or thing" on public sidewalks or rights of way in residential areas, which effectively would bar forever the type of hut that sat in front of the consulate from 2001 to 2009. The Falun Gong is protesting against the Communist Party ban on the spiritual group in China.
As well, groups wanting to set up structures in commercial areas would be asked for a $1,000 deposit and $200 initial application fee, and only structures that can be removed every night would be allowed.
"It's certainly a ban on demonstrating in front of the Chinese consulate, and it immunizes all [diplomatic offices]in the city, which are in residential zones," said Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. "And the $1,200 up front is really problematic for everybody."
The new rules would affect all kinds of small protest groups that have set up everything from tents to small cardboard houses to large signs over the years.
Vancouver has had some legendary protests that would not be allowed under such a bylaw, including the squat around the empty Woodward's building in 2002 and protests at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The change is the direct result of a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling last October in which Madam Justice Carol Huddart struck down part of the city's existing bylaw. She said the injunction the city acted on in 2009 to remove the Falun Gong hut in front of the consulate was unconstitutional because other kinds of structures were allowed elsewhere and there were no clear rules.
The judge gave the city six months to improve the bylaw. The new proposal, part of a report titled "Structures for Public Expression," was posted on the city website on Wednesday, a day before the meeting at which it is to be voted on. That is generating additional complaints, since it gives groups little more than 24 hours to prepare to speak in opposition.
The report also proposes that the city put up several large structures of its own at various gathering points, where groups with political points can post material. Some of the suggested sites include the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza, Canada Place and the plaza outside the main branch of the public library.
City engineer Jerry Dobrovolny said the bylaw change is an effort to strike a balance between two very different needs: "people's right to free expression and their right to safety and to their privacy."
Although the bylaw would effectively ban any structure on the sidewalk in front of the Chinese consulate, the Falun Gong could apply for a permit for a structure in front of the office where Chinese visas are issued on Broadway near Granville Street. That's because it's in a commercial zone.
Groups would be allowed to keep up a structure for 30 days, and would have to wait another 30 days after that to reapply to put it up again.
Mr. Dobrovolny said the city met with representatives from B.C. Civil Liberties, Falun Gong and the Chinese consulate as it prepared the bylaw, and tried to take their concerns into account. He acknowledged, however, the city couldn't satisfy all of their requests for changes.
The new section of the bylaw wouldn't affect election signs, which are covered separately. They are already prohibited on city property.
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