Canada must confront rules around striking


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After the so-called Freedom Convoy set up shop at major ports of entry along the Canada-U.S. border last year, it became obvious to Canadians and our leaders how vulnerable the country’s critical infrastructure truly is.

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After the so-called Freedom Convoy set up shop at major ports of entry along the Canada-U.S. border last year, it became obvious to Canadians and our leaders how vulnerable the country’s critical infrastructure truly is.

Now, it seems members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada are looking to capitalize on that lesson.

Earlier this week, PSAC — which represents the more than 150,000 federal public servants who are striking for what they call a “fair contract” — promised to ramp up its efforts by moving some picket lines to critical roads and infrastructure to amplify the strike’s impact.

Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada picket along Richmond Avenue near the Brandon Service Canada Centre on April 19. (Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun)

It’s important to note members of the Freedom Convoy were protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandates and the federal Liberal government — this is much different than the intentions behind the PSAC strike. Those union members are calling for increased wages to keep up with inflation and allowances for remote work, among other things. The parallels between the two groups are few and far between. However, their strategies for getting their message across follow a similar pattern.

An analysis by Transport Canada released last November estimated the Freedom Convoy blockades, which appeared at prominent crossings in Windsor, Ont., Emerson, Man., and Coutts, Alta., halted up to $3.9 billion in trade over several days. This is what prompted the prime minister to invoke the controversial Emergencies Act, ultimately putting an end to the blockades.

It’s too early to tell what kind of impact the PSAC strike — which is believed to be one of the largest strikes in Canadian history — will have in the long term. But we know it’s currently taking a toll on immigration and tax services. Citizenship ceremonies have been cancelled and the immigration application backlog is growing. Canadian Revenue Agency wait times are swelling due to fewer workers on the job, making it harder for some Canadians to file personal income tax returns by the May 1 deadline. This may eventually translate into millions of dollars lost.

The PSAC demonstration is happening on a much smaller scale than the Freedom Convoy, and in a less disruptive fashion at spots across Canada, including here in Brandon. But the union’s attempt to hinder movement at “strategic locations,” such as ports in Montreal, Vancouver and St. John’s, raises concerns about potential copycats and the integrity of Canada’s critical infrastructure.

“The events of last year highlighted how vulnerable we are, and it may not be surprising if other groups now seize on that vulnerability to exploit what they now realize is a key sort of critical shortcoming in infrastructure,” Ambarish Chandra, an economics expert, told The Canadian Press this week.

Federal ministers said they’re keeping a watchful eye on the strike for this very reason.

“On one hand, they have the right to strike and demonstrate,” Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told reporters Tuesday.

“On the other hand, we need to make sure that the economy can continue functioning around the country.”

Meanwhile, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said he has been in contact with ports and airports to make sure they have contingency plans in place.

As Champagne pointed out, residents in Canada have the right to peaceful protest. But what happens when a peaceful protest threatens Canada’s economic security? Is it still considered peaceful? Should there be limitations? It’s a hard balance to strike.

The Alberta government has tried to mitigate such disruptions with a new law introduced in 2020 — the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act. The law “protects essential infrastructure from damage or interference caused by blockades, protests or similar activities, which can cause significant public safety, social, economic and environmental consequences.”

In other words, the law makes it an offence for individuals to protest on important infrastructure. Those convicted of violating the law could be fined thousands of dollars or face jail time or both. The former Pallister government attempted to introduce a similar law in 2021, but it was delayed by the NDP and was never reintroduced.

At the same time as the Alberta legislation was introduced, blockades stemming from a pipeline dispute on Wet’suwet’en territory in Northern British Columbia had shut down much of Canada’s rail network.

The bill ultimately passed despite significant push-back, including by some who claimed the legislation violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

With an outburst of strikes and protests in recent years — whether they represent labour or social or political issues — and more to come, Canada will likely be forced to contend with additional unrest at its points of critical infrastructure. And how our country navigates that unrest will surely change the way Canadians protest.

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