Bill for harsh penalties against rail blockaders paused by pandemic

An Alberta government bill that would dole out heavy penalties to protesters blocking rail lines, highways, pipelines or dams is on the back burner as legislators grapple with a pandemic.

Critical Infrastructure Defence Act takes a back seat to government coping with public health crisis

House leader Jason Nixon says the Alberta government will put any controversial bills aside so the legislature can deal with more urgent issues to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

An Alberta government bill that would dole out heavy penalties to protesters blocking rail lines, highways, pipelines or dams is on the back burner as legislators grapple with a pandemic.

Government House leader Jason Nixon said Thursday that Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, is likely to take a backseat to emergency legislation as the province hunkers down to prevent spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

"Our goal is not to move forward on bills that would have been within our mandate that we ran on, that would be a little bit more controversial to the Opposition," Nixon told reporters in the legislature on Thursday.

The government tabled Bill 1 in February after protesters erected blockades across key Canadian rail links and commuter train routes. Demonstrators said the blockades were in solidarity with Indigenous people in northern B.C. opposed to construction of the Coast GasLink liquid natural gas pipeline.

The illegal blockades interrupted the movement of goods across the country, halted passenger trains and caused backlogs at coastal ports.

If Bill 1 passes, people found guilty of obstructing or damaging oil and gas facilities, utilities, radio towers, rail lines or other important infrastructure could face up to six months in jail or up to $25,000 in fines each day.

Law could violate human rights, opponents say

The Assembly of First Nations has pressed Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to withdraw the bill, saying it would infringe on Indigenous and individual rights.

The Alberta Federation of Labour called the legislation "unsalvageable," adding it would violate citizens' rights to freedom of expression and dissent.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association said the legislation could potentially run afoul of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Constitution.

The legislation is one of four bills the Alberta government has tabled this session that has not yet passed the legislature.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic disrupts typical business, the legislature faces the prospect of being told to shut down by Alberta's chief medical officer of health. The premier has said he wants the session to carry on as long as it can. The spring sitting began on Feb. 26.

Friday bill to tackle states of emergency

On Friday, the government intends to table a bill that makes an urgent amendment to the Emergency Management Act, Nixon said. The change would prevent any provincial state of emergency from superseding a town or city's local state of emergency.

If the chamber can carry on, Nixon said he'll push forward with bills least likely to generate resistance from the Opposition.

"Our sense right now is we want to use the chamber first off to deal with anything we can to help the emergency," he said Thursday. "Albertans don't want us spending a lot of time arguing about issues where there's differences between the two parties, and instead focusing on where there can be common ground to move forward in a positive way."

Nixon said the legislature could debate a bill that aims to protect survivors of human trafficking.

The United Conservative Party campaigned on allowing trafficking victims to get restraining orders against abusers and to better train police, prosecutors and judges to identify victims and prosecute traffickers.

Opposition House leader Heather Sweet said on Thursday the NDP has agreed to help expedite any bills needed for the government to respond to the pandemic.

She hopes the government doesn't take advantage of that co-operation to speed through other bills, she said.