Strictures for Political Expression

Anyone who witnessed on 19 April 2011 the seven hours — all morning and all evening — that Vancouver City Council spent cobbling together last-minute amendments to Vancouver’s Street and Traffic By-law (reference Agenda Item 1) should have an excellent idea of how bureaucracy cannot cope with freedom.

More than two weeks earlier on April 7, the issue of “Structures on Streets for Political Expression” had already eaten up an entire afternoon. By one well-placed account, the contentious report first appeared online and available to the public at 1:30 pm on Tuesday April 5. Report presenter Peter Judd made several apologies for the lateness of a document that the City had had more than five months to prepare. The public had only 48 hours of lead time. The five speakers heard on that first afternoon included Clive Ansley, legal representative for Falun Gong, and Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Despite the generality of the bylaw amendments proposed, the report to council (amended version) made clear a desire “to align with direction provided by the B.C. Court of Appeal in the matter of the Falun Gong.” The elephant in this bylaw closet was the ongoing protest outside the Chinese consulate on Granville Street. The bylaw amendment itself adopted a cumbersome and much vaguer designation to generalize its effect and coverage.

On April 7 and April 19, councillors eventually heard from “24 speakers, five in support of the recommendations who also expressed concerns and 19 opposed to the recommendations” [minutes, p. 3].

Woodsworth having failed to obtain a detailed exclusion for homeless persons erecting a tent, Cadman then proposed to ask staff about “temporary shelters on Vancouver streets as part of the Homelessness Strategy.” This soft call for making inquiry carried unanimously.

Next, Raymond Louie moved an amendment whose effect was to exclude permitting of political expression structures at any consulate located in a residential area, by removing the “except” clause from the end of 71(B)(3)(g). His only supporter on that vote was Kerry Jang. When the motion itself came to a vote, Louie abandoned his Vision caucus — to join Anton, Cadman, and Woodsworth in opposing the attempt to specify this particular regulation of political expression. Meanwhile, Jang flip-flopped and voted to support the motion itself [minutes, p. 8].

Media had a heyday in the interim (see appended list of further reading) between April 7 and April 19. The report to Council did some heavy-duty backtracking. The link to the original report for April 7 got disappeared from the city web site and replaced by the amended report linked to above. A City of Vancouver press release went into doublespeak overdrive about producing a bylaw that would set precedent in facilitating protest — while in reality restricting it.

The most striking thing about the media coverage was avoidance and neglect of the outcome. After all the in-between stories and comments, almost no reporting covered the final shenanigans in Council. This account now exhumes detail from the archive. The Louie gesture at protecting consulates in residential areas was the strangest lunge, since it would have completely eliminated the possibility of the Falun Gong protest structure that generated the court case that resulted in the call to produce a bylaw amendment. In essence, to riff on a well-known children’s rhyme, the bylaw that Jack built would have lost its purpose.

Almost as weird was the late-in-the-game addition of section 71E (with — count ’em — 17 subsections) on “Tables Conveying Political Expression.” The notion was to define a “table” as an object that could be excluded from the bylaw restrictions … at least to the point of not needing a permit. That kind of exercise brings back memories of novice efforts at grappling with the abstractions so beloved of philosophy professors. (When is a table not a chair, etc.) If you want to visit that full page in all its kookiness, check out the minutes of the meeting (p. 5-6).

Apart from the literal eleventh-hour approval, enveloped in an atmosphere of presumed fatal expiry at midnight of law and order on the streets of Vancouver, should some set of words not be passed, a few exhausted councillors also seemed to declare they didn’t really much care if the whole mess bounced right back into the courts from which it came. Thus did anarchic tendencies emerge in Vancouver municipal governance.

Were it not for the damage being done to freedoms, most of the performance could be applauded as a rare dance of zanies. Four of the eleven councillors did oppose the restrictions, on what appeared to be widely variant grounds: Anton, Cadman, Louie, Woodsworth. Only slightly impaired, the Vision bloc once again did its will against a strong majority of speakers to Council.

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This account is one-half of a diptych. The other half celebrates the Poverty Olympics Torch of 2009-2010 whose existence on the streets of Vancouver would now infract the new bylaw in so many ways.

Further Reading:

Frances Bula. Proposed Vancouver bylaw would restrict Falun Gong protest. Globe & Mail (7 April 2011) S1

Advocacy groups call on Mayor and Council to reject proposal to regulate public expression. BC Civil Liberties Association (6 April 2011)

Yolande Cole. Proposed Vancouver public expression bylaw criticized as “unduly onerous”. Georgia Straight (7 April 2011)

Jeff Lee / Andrea Woo. Vancouver may allow political protest structures – but not outside Chinese Consulate.Vancouver Sun (7 April 2011)

Jeff Lee / Andrea Woo. New rules for political protest structures come under fire. Vancouver Sun (7 April 2011) A3

Jeff Lee. “Vancouver city staff consulted Chinese government over bylaw.” Vancouver Sun (8 April 2011) A11

Pete McMartin. “Another Gong show, hosted by the City of Vancouver.” Vancouver Sun (9 April 2011) A5

Patrick Brethour. Vancouver in damage control over proposal that limits Falun Gong. Globe & Mail (11 April 2011) A7

Andy Ivens. Vancouver protest bylaw sent back to drawing board. Province (11 April 2011)

Robert Matas. Chinese deny involvement in Vancouver protest bylaw. Globe & Mail (12 April 2011) S1

Pete McMartin. ‘Absolutely impossible’ that city not pressured to remove Falun Gong. Vancouver Sun (12 April 2011)

Robert Matas. Placing limits on the right to protest: Three views of a controversial bylaw. Globe & Mail (13 April 2011) S3

Gary Mason. Vancouver’s Falun Gong show. Globe & Mail (14 April 2011)

Jeff Lee. Vancouver to allow smaller Falun Gong protest structures. Vancouver Sun (14 April 2011)

BCCLA says “Take Two” on City’s political structures bylaw still violates rights. BC Civil Liberties Association (18 April 2011)

Yolande Cole. Falun Gong “equally disappointed” with redrafted protest bylaw, spokesperson tells Vancouver council. Georgia Straight (19 April 2011)

Nathan Crompton. Law limiting protest passed, BCCLA to partake in constitutional challenge. Mainlander (19 April 2011)

Jeff Lee. Falun Gong member appeals to Vancouver council on bylaw. Vancouver Sun (19 April 2011)