Ontario legislates anti-free speech bubble zone

Ontario enacts bubble zone law.

Ontario enacts bubble zone law.

Last month all three official parties joined forces to swiftly pass Bill 163, the Safe Access to Abortion Services Act, 2017, stifling the free speech, expression, and assembly rights of pro-lifers. The law, passed on Oct. 25, creates a bubble zone around abortion facilities of at least 50 meters — and as much 150 meters — in which any pro-life activity, including silent prayer, is prohibited.

The Ontario Attorney General, Yasir Navqi, and Status of Women Minister, Indira Naidoo-Harris, announced the bill on Oct. 4 at Planned Parenthood Toronto. There, the two Liberal cabinet ministers repeatedly thanked “the advocates” in attendance for their work in fighting for and helping to develop the new bubble zone.

A previous injunction proscribed pro-life speech around five specific Ontario abortuaries, but it was rescinded in 2016. Pro-abortion advocates have been agitating for a law with punitive punishments to rid the pro-life presence from outside their businesses. The bubble zone will also apply to abortuary staff’s places of residences, pharmacies and doctor’s offices that dispense the abortion drug Mifegymiso, and hospitals where abortions are committed.

Pro-life activists who interfere with anyone accessing abortion services within the designated area or abortion professionals will be subject to a fine of up to $5,000 and/or six months imprisonment on first conviction and fines of $1000 to $10,000 and up to one year in jail for subsequent violations.

Navqi and Naidoo-Harris said the designated area is meant to prevent women and staff from being harassed, intimidated, or threatened. Echoing comments made by Planned Parenthood Toronto executive director Sarah Hobbs-Blyth who said there mere presence of pro-life protesters is harassment, judging women as they “exercise their legal right” to abortion. Hobbs-Blyth said pro-life messages, abortion victim imagery, and “so-called counseling” cause harm to women when they obtain an abortion.

Jakki Jeffs, executive director of Alliance for Life Ontario, told Radio-Canada, “they are redefining harassment, redefining intimidation.”

Navqi appeared to become emotional when relating the impetus to the government acting on bubble zones. He noted media reports earlier this year claiming that an anti-abortion activist spat on a woman at an Ottawa abortuary.

Phil Horgan, a lawyer and president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, argued during consultations in the summer that the bubble zone was not only an unconstitutional foray for the province to violate federal jurisdiction in creating new criminal offenses, but completely unnecessary because current trespass and assault laws would apply to actual cases of intimidation or harassment.

Later that day the Liberals introduced Bill 163 at Queen’s Park and Progressive Conservative MP Lisa Macleod (Nepean—Carleton) rose to ask it be fast-tracked, scuttling any debate on the proposed law in the legislature or committee. Macleod claimed the caucus supported her maneuver and accused the Liberals of playing political games. Earlier in the day, PC leader Patrick Brown released a video declaring himself pro-choice and pro-same-sex “marriage,” and charging the Liberals with unnecessarily re-opening a divisive social issue to change the channel from their dreadful economic record and government scandals.

A week later, the Liberal government agreed to expedite hearings and pass the law speedily. Public hearings were scheduled for Oct. 19, a clause-by-clause reading for Oct. 23, and third reading on Oct. 25.

The standing committee on general government heard from witnesses representing both pro-life and pro-abortion groups. Campaign Life Coalition, 40 Days for Life, Silent No More Awareness, the Association for Reformed Political Action, and the Catholic Civil Rights League argued against the bubble zone, while Planned Parenthood Toronto, Planned Parenthood Ottawa, the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, Pro-Choice Action Network, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, and Ottawa city councilor Catherine McKenney spoke in favour.

During third reading, Navqi said 17 individuals from 14 groups addressed the standing committee and he thanked all who participated in the hearings who “confirmed for us that we struck the right balance.” He implied that all speakers supported Bill 163 or ignored the half dozen speakers who urged the government to not impose a bubble zone against free speech in Ontario.

Navqi was adamant that “we are not denying the right of people to protest” because pro-lifers are “free to take part in anti-abortion protests” 50 to 150 meters away from abortion facilities. He insisted the government got the right “balance” between free speech rights and the right to abortion.

CCRL’s Phil Horgan noted that the government was denying actual Charter rights to freedom of speech, expression, and assembly in favour of abortion which neither the Charter nor the Supreme Court has acknowledged as a right in Canada.

PC MP Macleod condemned the Liberals for “playing political games” for attempting to divide the Tory caucus, which she insisted was both united in favour of Bill 163 and had a diversity of opinion on the bubble zone.

When the vote was completed, 86 Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and NDP MPPs voted in favour, and Trillium MP Jack MacLaren (Carleton—Mississippi Mills) was the lone vote against. MPPs green-lit as pro-life and pro-family by Campaign Life Coalition that were not present for the vote included Monte McNaughton (Lambton-Kent-Middlesex) and Sam Oosterhoff (Niagara West—Glanbrook).

ARPA and CLC are both considering legal challenges to the bubble zone.

The day the law passed, 40 Days for Life vigils that were taking place in Mississauga and Ottawa, shut down.

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