Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. government proposing 'safe zone' around clinics after weekend anti-vax protest

The province says it will make it illegal to demonstrate within 50 metres of a health clinic or school, following a protest in St. John's on Saturday that sent a vaccine clinic into lockdown.

Legislation would balance right to protest and right to access health care: province

A small group of anti-vaccination demonstrators forced a booster shot clinic into lockdown on Saturday, says Eastern Health. (Submitted by Lacy O'Connell)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government says it will make it illegal to hold a demonstration within 50 metres of a health clinic or school, following a protest in St. John's on Saturday that sent a vaccine clinic into lockdown.

A media release from the Department of Justice and Public Safety said Monday that the provincial government would table legislation to create "safe access zones" similar to those protecting abortion clinics.

"If passed, this legislation will prohibit interference, besetting, physically interfering with or intimidating service providers and users of health and education facilities," the release said.

The news comes two days after an anti-vaccine protest outside Waterford Valley High School forced a public booster clinic to close early. Eastern Health says 50 people waited inside as police secured the area.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary told CBC that no charges were laid.

Eastern Health said 60 people were turned away and asked to return to the clinic on Monday to get their shot.

A health authority spokesperson said Eastern Health closed the clinic early due to "inappropriate behaviour" from the protesters, such as shouting and being unmasked within close range of the clinic's attendees.

Access a 'priority': justice minister

The Department of Justice says the new proposed law, which government says it will introduce during the spring sitting of the House of Assembly, is "intended to balance the right to peaceful protest with the right of individuals to access health and education services free from physical threats and emotional upset."

"It'll prevent that interference and intimidation," said Justice Minister John Hogan in an interview Monday.

Justice Minister John Hogan says the weekend's protest prompted the provincial government to tell the public that legislative changes would be introduced for debate at the House of Assembly this spring. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"As we can see from protests and gatherings over the weekend … we do want to make sure that workers, health-care providers, teachers, parents, children [and] people getting health-care treatments are protected. That's a priority for this government and we want to be crystal clear that there'll be no [obstructed] access to these sites in the future."

Hogan said government would propose a fine, possibly of $10,000, or imprisonment if the law is broken. He said it would also contain an exemption for labour groups who may be demonstrating on strike.

"We wanted to tell the public today, due to recent events, that this is on our radar," he said.

"Maybe we've only seen a couple of protests, but we don't want to wait until something bad happens.… We want to be proactive."

Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses' Union Newfoundland and Labrador, applauds the upcoming proposal. (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

Yvette Coffey, president of Newfoundland and Labrador's Registered Nurses' Union, said the association welcomes the plan.

"Health-care workers face violence — physical, emotional, verbal abuse — on a daily basis," Coffey said.

"COVID-19 these past two years has been very stressful.… There's a lot of stress everywhere, within the public and within the system."

Coffey said the legislation, if passed, would complement Bill C-3, which received royal assent in December and legally protects patients and health-care workers from harassment.

A Newfoundland and Labrador-specific law creating a measurable no-demonstrating zone around facilities is "something we've been calling for," she said.

"No health-care worker, no client, should face demonstrators when they're trying to get health-care services."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Patrick Butler

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