British Columbia

Civil liberties advocate defends right to protest after rallies outside B.C. hospitals

In response to outrage over demonstrations against vaccine passports across B.C. this week, a civil liberties advocate is reminding the public that protesting is a fundamental right shared by all Canadians.

Community groups say there are legitimate concerns about impact of vaccine passports on vulnerable groups

Thousands of people protesting against COVID-19 vaccine passports gathered near Vancouver City Hall on Sept. 1, 2021. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

In response to outrage over demonstrations against vaccine passports across B.C. this week, a civil liberties advocate is reminding the public that protesting is a fundamental right shared by all Canadians.

Meghan McDermott, interim policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), said she understands people are stressed out and scared right now, and many may be angry that protesters gathered outside hospitals where health-care workers are treating people with COVID-19.

"However, the bottom line with Canadian law and with living in a free and open democratic society is that we generally have the right to protest and to express dissent about government measures," McDermott told CBC News.

She noted that the right to protest is not absolute though, and demonstrations could reasonably be restricted if they interfere with things like access to health care or harm people in other ways.

Wednesday's protests were held in cities and towns across B.C. and the rest of Canada, and many were focused on local hospitals. 

On Vancouver Island, the health authority reported that some of the protests disrupted people's safe access to health care, and workers were verbally abused by the protesters or even, in one case, assaulted.

In Vancouver, though the protest began at Vancouver General Hospital, it soon moved to City Hall and no disruptions to hospital operations were reported.

Protesters hold signs at the rally against mandatory vaccines in Vancouver on Sept. 1, 2021. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

But hospital transfer driver Darren Nickerson said the protests did create significant delays for the patients he was trying to get to appointments on time.

"It was just a very daunting task trying to get these patients in and out," he said. "It took a lot of time to get into the hospital itself. I just felt bad for the patients."

Community groups call for changes to vaccine passports

While many of the demonstrators in Vancouver expressed opposition to vaccines and pandemic-related measures in general, others said they were there because they were concerned about the incoming requirement to show proof of vaccination to access many non-essential services.

McDermott said that people who have questions about bodily autonomy and informed consent have a right to ask those questions.

"While this isn't a vaccine mandate … so it's not interfering with our bodily autonomy, some people really do think that it's an indirect way [of doing so]," she said.

She also argued that there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about how the province is rolling out its B.C. vaccine card program.

The BCCLA was one of 25 community organizations, including Disability Alliance B.C. and Pivot Legal Society, that signed a letter to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix this week calling for changes to the plan.

The letter points to several groups of people who may be unfairly denied service because of the vaccine passport program, including undocumented migrants who don't have access to MSP, people who can't be vaccinated because of complex medical conditions, low-income people without government-issued identification, people who use drugs, and transgender, non-binary and two-spirit people whose IDs contain inaccurate information.

The groups are asking for measures to ensure that people who aren't enrolled in MSP or who have inadequate identification still have a way to prove their vaccination status.

They're also asking for accommodations so that people who might have a reaction to the vaccine can receive the shot in a hospital setting, and exemptions for those who simply can't be vaccinated.

With files from Eva Uguen-Csenge and Georgie Smyth