The government, elected officials and bureaucrats alike, in a democracy has many jobs but one duty – to uphold the law. If the people in government are unwilling to fulfill their duty, they should ask themselves why anyone should obey the new laws they pass while in power.
The law in this democracy allows for peaceful protest. Freedom of assembly is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Like all freedoms, there are limits. Citizens are free to assemble in public places to protest, grieve, celebrate, communicate. Once that assembly involves the occupation of government offices and the blocking of roads and railways, it infringes upon the rights of others to move freely and it breaks the law.
More often than not, the police in this country arrive, inform the citizens that their assembly is now in violation of the law and ask them to leave. Although ignorance of the law is not a legal defence (meaning the police have the legal authority to show up and immediately make arrests), police officers inform the gathered citizens of the unlawfulness of their actions because arrests are the last resort. Whether it’s domestic disputes or disturbing the peace, the longstanding practice of Canadian police forces is to give citizens the opportunity to back down.
If those citizens are still unwilling to legalize their behaviour, they are arrested.
Many of the current protests across Canada - like the one held in Prince George last Saturday - are legal. Many are not and those protests should be handled accordingly.
Some of the most passionate protesters are on social media, comparing their causes to Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Aside from the vanity of equating oneself to King or Gandhi (the equivalent of picking up a guitar and proclaiming to be like Bob Dylan), these protesters clearly don’t know much about either man or the protest movements they led. Gandhi and King knew their acts of civil disobedience were in violation of the law and would lead to their arrest. They welcomed it. The black men and women who occupied whites-only lunch counters in the South (the customers were still allowed to eat and the staff were still allowed to cook and serve) were specifically chosen for their calm patience. They would not get upset when people yelled at them, threw things at them or physically assaulted them. When police officers arrived, the protesters told them they would not leave until they were arrested but would not resist arrest or confinement in any way.
Instead, it appears so many of the protesters resist arrest (passive resistance is still resistance), call the arresting officers horrible names and claim that any physical restraint used on them is an act of violence. King and his supporters knew the difference between a night stick smashed over your head and an officer firmly leading you to the back of a squad car.
Most of the current online rants on both sides are horrible, not only because they are intentionally ignorant of the issues and the history but also because they promote more conflict. Political parties, social (anti-social?) activists and environmental groups are the worst, with their email blasts and Facebook posts to their supporters, stoking the outrage and then pleading for money to keep up the good fight. When the battle ends, the cash stops flowing in so these hucksters just want to keep the conflict going.
Beware also the hypocrites. How can someone rip up teachers contracts while in government, forcing teachers to wage a 15-year legal battle to get their rights back and then, without any sense of shame, demand the premier use the rule of law to deal with protesters blocking entrance to the Legislature? And how can someone insist governments respect legal decisions recognizing the authority of First Nations and then shamelessly argue that the government and the courts have no authority when the ruling doesn’t go their way?
"I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law,” King wrote in Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Note the language - “willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment” and “expressing the highest respect for law.”
King had faith in two concepts that were, at the time, in opposition. He believed in the righteousness of his cause (and his ability to convince others of his righteousness through dialogue) and he also believed in justice and the law, even when it put him in a cage. Whether you support the current protests or any other acts of civil disobedience or not, everyone who believes in democracy can agree on two things – the right to lawfully protest and the sanctity of the law.
If the protest is unlawful and if the protesters are unwilling to back down once the police show up, the protesters should be respectfully and safely arrested without delay. The protesters being arrested should be likewise respectful of the arresting officers and the courts doing their jobs enforcing the law. If the police, the protesters or counter-protesters are violent or incite violence, they should be legally held responsible.
The police, the courts and the law itself are imperfect instruments to build a just and democratic society but they are the best tools we have. While they have failed us at specific times, they have also been tremendously successful over the course of our common history.
- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout