About the Issue
The right to protest brings together a number of basic civil liberties including freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly. Each of these rights is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and each is a part of the right we all have to dissent. A democratic society welcomes debate and disagreement on the key issues of the day, and protest is a big part of this process. Protests can be messy and disruptive, but they are also crucial to our well-being as a society. We only have the right to vote every few years, but protests provide opportunities to express our views and grievances at any time.
Why This Matters
While the Charter protects many of the rights that are crucial to effective protest, laws at a number of levels limit this right in very real ways. The Criminal Code creates offences for breaching the peace and unlawful assembly. Provincial legislation may restrict blockades on public roadways and assemblies on certain pieces of public property. Finally, municipal by-laws often limit how, when, and where, protests can be held. If we allow too many restrictions on the fundamental right to protest, we silence the voices of many in our society, particularly those who may have limited other means for making their views known. It’s worth remembering that protests are intended to cause disruption and this is protected activity in a democracy. Strong protections for the right to protest are essential to meaningful and informed political debate and discussion.
CCLA has worked to safeguard the right to protest through court interventions, submissions to legislative committees, and letters to public bodies. We have spoken out on laws that create significant obstacles to peaceful protests and have worked proactively with protesters to ensure that their rights are safeguarded. CCLA’s work was front and centre during the G20 meeting in Toronto in 2010 and during the Occupy protests held throughout the country. We have stood up for the rights of workers to strike and picket, the rights of students and activists to protest, and have called for restrictions on how our courts may be used to silence protest activity.
During the G20 in Toronto in 2010 CCLA monitored protests and reported on our concerns about police tactics and restraints placed on peaceful protesters. In the absence of the full public inquiry that CCLA felt was warranted, we organized our own hearings and events to ensure that the voices of peaceful protesters were heard and that the stories detailing police abuses of power received the public attention they deserved. CCLA’s work on the right to protest is not confined to large international events. We have intervened in court cases to address municipal by-laws that limit protest rights and have addressed parliamentary committees considering laws that would restrict the right to peacefully protest.
CCLA has joined with nine other civil liberties and human rights organizations from around the world to release a report, “Take back the streets”: Repression and criminalization of protest around the world. Download the report here. The title of this publication is taken from an order given by a senior Toronto Police Commander during the G20 Summit in June 2010. It is emblematic of a very concerning pattern of government conduct: the tendency to transform individuals exercising a fundamental democratic right – the right to protest – into a perceived threat that requires a forceful government response. The nine case studies detailed in this report, each written by a different domestic civil liberties and human rights organization, provide contemporary examples of different governments’ reactions to peaceful protests. In addition to the CCLA from Canada, participating groups come from the United States, Israel, Argentina, Egypt, Hungary, Kenya, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. The studies document instances of unnecessary legal restrictions, discriminatory responses, criminalization of leaders, and unjustifiable – at times deadly – force. CCLA’s contribution focuses on the Montreal student protests.