Bubble zone street signs cite Bill 163 outside abortion clinics in Ottawa. Photo from Campaign Life Coalition/Twitter

Peter Stockland: Where do we stand with our rule of law?

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  • December 6, 2018

Last summer, Ottawa constitutional lawyer Albertos Polizogopoulos and I were on Ottawa’s Sparks Street when we encountered a sign warning we were entering an abortion safe-access zone.

The marker, which might have been mistaken for a generic parking sign, wasn’t intended to alert citizen sensitivities to the gruesome procedure routinely occurring a few metres east. On the contrary, it was a declaration of abortion-provider triumphalism signifying the political power to control what is said and done on public streets near a private profit-making business.

It was mandated by Ontario’s Safe Access to Abortion Services Act, which prohibits any protest against abortion within a 50-metre “bubble zone” around the Bank Street Morgentaler clinic.

Purely from a fundamental liberties perspective, it gave me a definite chill. Polizogopoulos responded with sharp-edged legal mockery. 

“If I stand on this side of the sign,” he said, taking a position just outside the bubble zone, “my rights are still protected by the Charter and I can say what I want. If I stand on the other side of the sign, apparently my Charter rights no longer apply and I lose my freedom of speech. So, what happens to my Charter rights if I stand with one foot on either side of the sign?” 

Where, indeed, are we all? 

Little did Polizogopoulos know that, within a few months, he would be in the thick of a legal fight to protect an 83-year-old Jesuit priest from losing his Charter rights for daring to offer a sign of his beliefs on the “wrong” side of the sign.

Fr. Tony Van Hee will be in court Jan. 24 for the first stage in his constitutional fight against the safe access law. The elderly priest was arrested in late October while on a five-day thought-crime spree that apparently upset abortion providers at the Morgentaler clinic.

Paradoxically, Polizogopoulos notes, Van Hee wasn’t protesting abortion. He was protesting suppression of free speech in Canada.

“The bubble zone law forbids you even expressing disapproval. But his signs didn’t mention abortion. They were about freedom of speech, which is why the law has to be challenged for being overbroad.”

Van Hee is famous for his pro-life stance. For almost 30 years, he maintained a vigil on Parliament Hill to protest abortion’s availability in Canada. 

It’s a fair inference his reputation preceded him, which only compounds the absurdity and the injustice of prosecuting him. Over those decades on the Hill, potentates, prime ministers, MPs and the general public passed by his protest without a hint of Van Hee ever impeding anyone’s safe access. 

What they got, if they chose to look, was a peaceful sign of one Canadian’s honest religious and political beliefs.

Are those beliefs now the purview of the police and courts? Polizogopoulos verbally shrugs.

“We don’t know. The Crown still hasn’t disclosed its case to us. It has an obligation to disclose, but so far we haven’t seen anything.”

Might that signal machinations are under way to drop charges before the case gets before a judge? Does it mean no Crown counsel wants to bring an 83-year-old priest into court to face six months in jail and a possible $5,000 fine for holding up a sign that promotes free speech?

Regardless of whether the case is quietly dropped, Polizogopoulos plans to find a way to continue fighting on constitutional grounds. He points out that the bubble zone law itself violates the fundamental freedoms our Charter guarantees. 

He cites the example of a lawyer friend being told he could not stand in front of the Morgentaler clinic wearing a T-shirt that said “We Need A Law” — the slogan of a duly constituted pro-life lobby group. In other words, the bubble zone law now appears so omnipotent it even precludes Canadians democratically desiring passage of other laws. 

If that is, in fact, the state of our rule of law, and if it’s allowed to prevail, it will be a clear sign that Polizogopoulos’ question about where we are has already been ominously answered.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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