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Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke said additional safety measures have also been put in place, including added security and a police presence.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Protesters calling on city councillors in Surrey, B.C., to ask for a ceasefire in Gaza have instead triggered a series of security changes that include the temporary end of all in-person attendance at council meetings by members of the public.

Mayor Brenda Locke told Monday’s council meeting that the decision to restrict public access had been made because of security concerns about protests that have been disrupting meetings since December, by demonstrators she said had “occupied” council chambers.

“Reluctantly, we have had to take this step to move the public outside of the gallery in order to ensure the business of the city continues,” she said.

Protester Saeed Naguib said he first addressed a council meeting in November, encouraging it to join other cities, such as Burnaby, B.C., in asking the federal government to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

“Victoria is too far away for me to go to get my voice heard politically, same thing with Ottawa,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I can’t fly to Ottawa to talk about these issues, but I could go to Surrey City Hall to try and address these concerns.”

Naguib said the protesters’ goal has shifted since then. He said he’d like council to put forward and vote on a motion on whether to call for a ceasefire so residents are armed with that information next election.

“We view our concerns as part of the business of the city. We are residents; we’re part of the community. All we want is to be able to sit down with our elected officials and have a conversation with them,” he said.

“We want our city council to acknowledge our country’s complicity (in the suffering of Palestinian civilians) and send a message to the prime minister to take actions to end the complicity, specifically an arms embargo, but if we can actually have a meeting with them, then we can detail, and work through and negotiate actual points.”

Council passed a motion on Monday to allow members of the public to attend and participate in meetings electronically, starting at the next meeting on April 8.

Locke told the meeting that registered members of the public could speak on items on the agenda, and additional safety measures had been put in place, including a police presence.

She said all council members respect the right to protest, but that does not extend to “blockading lawful activities.”

Naguib said he views the decision to halt the public’s in-person access to meetings as council “shutting down democracy.”

“We do need an outlet for residents to express their concerns and our city has blocked off every outlet and so it has come to this,” he said.

In an open letter to council posted to social media, protesters said they have tried to have their concerns “added to the agenda so that they may be addressed within the framework of the meetings, however, there is no mechanism that allows Surrey residents to add an item to the city council agenda.”

Coun. Linda Annis said the protests began late last year. She said the mayor later read a statement saying there was no room for Islamophobia and antisemitism anywhere in the world.

“That was not well received by protesters. They were looking for her to make a statement to ask for a ceasefire,” Annis said in an interview Tuesday.

“At a couple of meetings, we had to move from the council chambers into another room because the protesters had actually taken over the council chambers.”

On a livestream of a Jan. 15 meeting, protesters could be heard chanting inside council chambers. A recess was quickly taken and the meeting was moved to another room.

Annis said this type of disruption had become commonplace.

“Typically a speaker would come up and speak to the issue in Gaza and then they would start to chant,” she said.

She said city hall had been “under lockdown” during meetings and the public would be brought in one by one to speak on issues. Several protesters would sign up to speak to a specific bylaw, but would then pivot to Gaza, she said.

The decision to allow people to attend virtually was made because council noticed a decrease in members of the public weighing in on agenda matters, Annis said.

“It’s to encourage people that maybe weren’t comfortable to come to city hall under those circumstances, which is very unfortunate, the opportunity to be able to speak to the various bylaws.”

She said she didn’t know how long in-person attendance would be halted.

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