Vancouverites are free to protest wherever they want during the Winter Olympics as long as their actions are legal, Vancouver’s chief of police announced Thursday.
Further, says Jim Chu, Vancouver Police Department officers will not enter homes to seize signs that are political or personal in nature.
The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) says it will wait until Games time to see if Chu’s statements are borne out.
The chief’s statements come after recent concerns raised by civil liberties groups that city bylaws and provincial enabling legislation would restrict constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression.
“We want the world to appreciate that Canada is an open and free society that places the highest values on the rights of the individual, not the least of which are the rights to free assembly and speech,” Chu says.
“There are no protest-only zones, no demonstration pens and no corrals.
“No extraordinary efforts will be make to restrict protests or contain them because of the Olympics,” Chu says.
“We will uphold the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms before, during and after the Games.”
What police have done, Chu says, is work to ensure “areas in high profile and visible vicinities near Olympic venues are not earmarked for other purposes that would push public gatherings further away.”
He says this has been done in conjunction with the RCMP Integrated Security Unit and the city.
He says Games opponents, police critics and “hopefully well-meaning journalists” have painted a dire picture of what police plan to do to restrict freedoms.
“The scenarios you describe, sometimes simply in an effort to generate fear and conflict, are becoming ridiculous,” Chu says.
He says any extra powers the city has obtained are to focus on “guerilla marketing.”
BCCLA executive director David Eby says it’s not unusual for police to be pro free speech and rights in periods leading up to events.
He says the test will be “when the rubber hits the road” at Games time.
“We’re not packing our bags quite yet,” Eby says.
The host city agreement with Olympic organizers makes clear that the rights of Olympic sponsors are to be protected.
Chu’s statement comes after weeks of debate over what protests will be allowed where.
It also comes hot on the heels of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s announcement last Tuesday that protecting constitutional rights will be paramount in enforcing laws during the February Games period.
Greeted with skepticism from the BCCLA, the mayor’s announcement was the latest salvo in the war of words between lawmakers and civil rights activists on when, where and what kind of protests will be allowed during the Winter Olympics.
The civil liberties association maintains the move is a cynical one aimed at thwarting a court challenge to the bylaws.
The challenge, brought by anti-Olympic activists Chris Shaw and Alissa Westergaard Thorpe, alleges the bylaws violate the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed in the Charter.
Eby says the time for bylaw amendments and consultation was back in July at the latest, not three months before the Olympics.
He says lawyers on the lawsuit are finalizing a draft application to shorten timelines so that the matter can get to court before February 2010.