Lawyer says proposed Calgary bylaw following drag event protests is 'problematic'

A social justice lawyer says they’re concerned about a proposed bylaw going to vote in Calgary this week — introduced after months of protests and threats of violence targeting LGBTQ events in the city. 

Councillor says bylaw aims to strike balance between right to protest and inclusivity

The Calgary Public Library logo is seen on the side of a modern complex that also houses the YMCA.
Libraries, including the Seton Library, which was the scene of a disrupted drag storytime event earlier this month, would fall under a proposed bylaw. (Google Maps)

A social justice lawyer says they're concerned about a proposed Calgary bylaw — introduced for debate this week after months of protests and threats of violence targeting LGBTQ events in the city. 

On Tuesday, city council will consider a bylaw which create a 100-metre protester-free zone around libraries and recreation centres. 

Enforcement of the bylaw, if implemented, could mean up to one year jail time and/or a maximum fine of $10,000. 

It follows the recent arrest of a Calgary man charged with hate-motivated crimes after disrupting a storytime event at the Seton public library — and months of protests targeting LGBTQ events in Calgary and across the country

Adrienne Smith, a non-binary social justice lawyer practicing in Vancouver, said the intention of what Calgary is trying to achieve is sound, but it raises some concerns. 

"Transphobia is wrong, homophobia is wrong. Any kind of discrimination on the basis of identity is wrong," Smith said. 

"The ways that [the bylaw] could be used to regulate activity that we don't agree [with] at the moment is problematic," they said, adding that "often the experience of queer and trans people with police is not good." 

A person sits in an office with books behind them. they are wearing a blue button up shirt
Adrienne Smith is a social justice lawyer practicing in Vancouver. They're skeptical about the City of Calgary's proposed bylaw. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Smith said these groups are already protected by human rights legislation, and in serious cases the Criminal Code of Canada. 

"There's lots of other tools already available to the City of Calgary to be able to stop this kind of conduct," Smith said. 

"I'm a little skeptical about whether a bylaw is actually going to improve things on the ground for people who are experiencing hateful conduct, hateful remarks." 

They added that there is the potential for this bylaw to be misused in the future against unrelated forms of protest. 

On Friday, Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said the Safe and Inclusive Access Bylaw is about striking a balance between the right to protest, and making sure the city is safe and inclusive. 

She said the intention is to create a zone where people can enter and exit certain buildings without being harassed or intimidated. 

a woman with long dark hair stands in front of microphones
Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said the psychological and physical safety of Calgarians is at risk. (CBC)

"This is really about protecting people to be free from discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation … this provides safe and inclusive access again to uphold human rights legislation." 

In addition to the proposed bylaw, the city will look to retool its existing public behaviour bylaw to add the term intimidation into its definition of harassment. 

"The psychological and physical safety of Calgarians is at risk and I can say personally, I have had friends reach out to me, I have had members of the community reach out to me who are very concerned for their safety," Penner said. 

'Demonstrations of hate cannot go on' 

Anna Murphy, vice-chair of the City of Calgary Gender Equity Diversity and Inclusion subcommittee, said the bylaw isn't a silver bullet, but it is a step in the right direction. 

Murphy said a conversation is needed about how "we can better embolden and empower our law enforcements at a time when protest behaviour has changed." 

"We need to pull on every lever that we have available to us." 

a woman in a white blazer looks into the camera. she has bangs
Anna Murphy, vice-chair of the City of Calgary Gender Equity Diversity and Inclusion subcommittee. She said the bylaw isn't a silver bullet, but it is a start. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Murphy said it's not just up to the city: provincial and federal governments need to address these issues too. 

"We may need to engage in conversation about what needs to be done to strengthen the Criminal Code … as it is currently, there is a vagueness and a bit of unclear way that it's written." 

Murphy said there is considerable variability in the definitions of what constitutes a hate crime used by police services across Canada.

She added that "dehumanizing demonstrations of hate cannot go on" in the city.   

"As a community that is currently exhausted and in fact terrified, our existence being under a constant threat by those who are seeking to eradicate us simply for being who we are, this bylaw truly is a tangible demonstration of allyship." 

But human rights advocate Shane Chick, who also performs drag under the stage name Annchantress, said in a written statement to CBC that he doesn't think the bylaw will solve the problem. 

"The city has failed time and time again to provide adequate protection for the most marginalized communities among us," said Chick, who has also counter-protested at a recent event that was targeted by protestors. 

Council will debate the bylaw Tuesday during a regular meeting.


Jade Markus

Digital journalist

Jade Markus is a digital journalist at CBC Calgary.

With files from Helen Pike, Terri Trembath, Meghan Grant