British Columbia

Health and education workers support idea of 'bubble zones' after anti-vaccine protests at schools, hospitals

After anti-vaccine protests outside hospitals and schools in B.C. this month, representatives of hospital workers and school principals are asking for protest exclusion zones to be put in place around key institutions.

Lawyer says protest exclusion zones would be legal, especially when there are safety concerns

Thousands of people protesting against vaccination passports and the COVID-19 vaccine gathered near Vancouver General Hospital on Cambie Street on Sept. 1. Representatives of healthcare workers and school principals have called for protest exclusion zones to be enacted outside hospitals and schools. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

After anti-vaccine protests outside hospitals and schools in B.C. this month, representatives of hospital workers and school principals are asking for protest exclusion zones to be put in place around key institutions.

Thousands protested B.C.'s vaccine card rules outside hospitals earlier this month, and some healthcare workers were allegedly assaulted. On Friday, schools in and around Salmon Arm, B.C., were put into temporary lockdown after protesters entered them, and are set to remain locked beginning Monday.

Federal and provincial leaders have condemned the protests, and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has even promised to make it a criminal offence to block access to buildings that provide healthcare.

Kyla Lee, a lawyer at Acumen Law, said enacting protest zones around hospitals and schools would be entirely legal for governments to do.

"There are always going to be situations of competing rights, and the government's role is to protect people from harm, to protect the most people and respect the most rights as possible," she said.

"Obviously, the access to health care and the access to an education are more important than your right to protest in some spaces."

Lee says, historically, protest exclusion zones — also called bubble zones or buffer zones — were only used when there were legitimate safety concerns, such as when they were used to curtail protests outside abortion clinics in the 1990s.

Lawyer Kyla Lee says 'concerning' behaviour at anti-vaccine protests, including allegations of physical assault and entering schools, might qualify as a legitimate safety concern if governments decide to enact protest exclusion zones. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

She says the pattern of behaviour seen at the anti-vaccine protests, including the "significant escalation" seen when protesters entered schools, might qualify as a legitimate safety concern.

"When the protest starts to sort of lose the plot like that, then it becomes less a protest and more into the realm of just unlawful activity where people are trespassing on private property," she said. "The government has a right to prevent that from happening."

Lee says schools and hospitals could both be included in the legislation, and it could be a temporary measure for the duration of the pandemic.

'People felt a little demoralized'

Mike Old, coordinator of policy and planning at the provincial Hospital Employees Union, said the protests outside hospitals at the start of September were disrespectful and demoralized healthcare workers.

"I think it's important that we take proportionate action to make sure that people can continue to access health care freely," he said. "I think that's the balance the government's going to need to strike here."

"Go demonstrate in front of a politician's office or demonstrate somewhere else, but do not impede access to health care by workers or by patients and their families," he added.

'Strikes me as more than just unacceptable'

B.C.'s top leaders have condemned the anti-vaccine protests at hospitals and schools, with Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth calling those who protested at schools on Friday "covidiots" and "whack jobs".

Darren Danyluk, president of the B.C. Principals' & Vice-Principals' Association, said that protesters entering schools was disturbing and beyond unacceptable.

"Absolutely, I would be in favour of a bubble zone," he said. "Schools are public property, but they're not a mall. They're not an area for loitering and that kind of demonstration."

Danyluk says the responsibility of enforcing the zones should not rest exclusively with law enforcement, and  governments should also roll out a campaign of education around conduct and behaviour around school sites.

A spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Education said protesters should focus their dissatisfaction with government policies at the government, not at hospitals and schools.

"We are looking at a broader government approach to prevent this from happening again, and we are prepared to take any steps needed to protect students and staff in our schools," the spokesperson said.

With files from Joel Ballard