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Whistler getting increased powers for sign removal

Civil liberties group, local activist worry omnibus bill could restrict free speech during Games

The Resort Municipality of Whistler could soon get the power to enter private properties and remove protest signs as it pleases if an omnibus bill passes muster with the province.

Bill 13, the Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act, was given first reading in the legislature last Thursday. It could amend the Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act to allow municipal employees to enter private properties with a day's notice and remove signs contrary to local bylaws.

If passed, the law will apply to the Cities of Vancouver and Richmond, as well as Whistler, from Feb. 1 to March 31 of 2010 - all three Olympic communities during the periods of both the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

The municipality's Consolidated Sign Bylaw prohibits the display of any sign in the community aside from a specific list that includes election signs, real estate signs, display boxes and various others. It specifically prohibits banners, pennants or flags except for national, provincial or municipal flags.

Therefore anyone who puts up a protest banner reading a slogan such as "NO TO 2010" on their homes during the Games could have it removed by municipal employees.

The bill does ask that municipal officers exercise their authority at "reasonable times" and in a "reasonable manner," as well as take "reasonable steps" to advise the owner or occupier before they enter the property. But that just means they have to notify the owners - they don't have to ask for permission.

Authorities will have to satisfy any one of four conditions to enter a property: they can get the owner's consent; the owner can get 24 hours' notice of entry and the reasons for it; entry can be made on a warrant under the Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act; or a municipal official could have "reasonable grounds" for believing failure to enter could endanger the health or safety of the property owner.

Bill Bennett, B.C.'s Minister of Community and Rural Development, said all three municipalities - including Whistler - requested these changes themselves.

"We're giving powers to enforce the bylaws that are in existence in those communities," he said. "Our role in this is to respond to the request from the municipalities to give them temporary enforcement powers to enforce their existing bylaws."

Bennett went on to say that the Bill isn't meant to restrict free speech - it merely gives them the power to take less time to inform property owners before they remove any signs.

"I do understand the concern by some people that this can appear to be more than what it is," he said. "These bylaws that are passed by the three communities have to withstand... legal analysis, they have to be consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or they wouldn't get passed."

Section 2(b) of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out the right to free expression for all Canadians - specifically, freedom of "thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication."

Robert Holmes, president of the Vancouver-based B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the bill is an "unfortunate step" towards eroding the right to free expression.

"We hear from local officials, provincial officials and law enforcement people that that's not their intent," he said. "They then put forward laws that are written in such a broad fashion that they will have a chilling on what regular people say and do and they will have an effect in terms of how people conduct themselves through the Olympic period.

"That's even worse than indignity, it's an outrage."

Asked why the bill is going through, even with concerns over limitations on free speech, Holmes said that's because the Olympics are so close.

"If you look at the timing of this, how long have they known the Olympics are going to come along, and how long have they left it to introduce such a thing?" he said. "Having the matter heard in court before the Olympics is simply not possible."

Whistler activist Sara Jennings, who plans to mount protests during the Games, echoed Holmes's sentiments and said the bill could pose a profound threat to free speech.

"I think it's just another example of erosion of our civil liberties," she said. "I do hope that this motivates people to better understand why there is opposition to the Olympics, and that even supporters of the Games should be very upset by things like this that are eroding our free speech."