Bill 45: New gag law threatens free expression for all Albertans

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

TORONTO, ON – Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) is extremely concerned by the Alberta government’s unprecedented and unacceptable attack on freedom of expression. The recent passage of Bill 45, a gag law, makes it illegal to advocate for a strike by public employees and poses serious threats to press freedom in the province.

The controversial bill, rushed through the provincial legislature in early December, lays out harsh punishments for anyone who counsels government workers to strike or threaten to strike. It sets daily fines of $250,000 for unions, $10,000 for union leaders, a day’s pay for employees and $500 for anyone else. Advocating a slowdown or production disruption is subject to the same penalties. This tough stance follows the firing of four prison guards after an illegal five-day walkout in April.

The law is a direct assault on the free expression guarantees in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, said Peter Jacobsen, Chair of CJFE’s Canadian Issues Committee, adding that journalists could be among those most affected.

“It could mean financial ruin for a blogger or columnist who opines that government employees in Alberta are getting a raw deal and says they ought to do something about it,” Jacobsen said. The law also gives the provincial Labour Relations Board the power to order anyone “to do or refrain from doing anything” with respect to a strike or threat. Jacobsen noted that clause could be used to justify silencing critics of the government’s handling of labour disputes.

Another law passed together with Bill 45 removes the option to pursue binding arbitration in the current round of negotiations between the government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. It imposes a deadline for concluding bargaining and sets wage rates in the event of an impasse.

Strikes have been illegal for most public-sector workers in Alberta since 1977, but this is the first time such sweeping penalties for advocacy or threats have been imposed. The hastily-passed laws have been denounced by opposition politicians and commentators.

In an editorial, the Calgary Herald called Bill 45 “Orwellian” and “a draconian assault on the right to freedom of expression.”

Columnist Don Braid wrote that for Alberta’s public-sector unions, “talking is now pretty much illegal.” Freedom of expression, Braid noted, allows citizens “to talk about challenging, testing, pushing or even breaking” a law, adding that “the offence is in the breaking, not the talking.”

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk told the National Post that Bill 45 is aimed only at union leaders who have the authority to call or counsel a strike – a claim challenged by Jacobsen on behalf of CJFE.

“If that’s true, why is the law so broad as to specify that ‘any person’ who does that is guilty of an offence?” Jacobsen asked. “Why is there no exemption for the purpose of news reporting and comment?”

Several commentators have noted the contradiction between Bill 45’s disdain for basic freedoms and Redford’s previous career as a lawyer involved in human rights work.

The new law recalls an earlier Alberta episode – the notorious press-muzzling legislation passed in 1937 by the government of William Aberhart. That legislation would have forced newspapers to publish “corrections” prepared by Aberhart’s Social Credit party. It would have given judges the power to ban publication of writings by specified individuals, and shut down any newspaper defying such a ban. The Supreme Court of Canada threw out Aberhart’s law, ruling that it was beyond provincial jurisdiction. It used the occasion to remind politicians that free debate about public affairs “is the breath of life for parliamentary institutions.” That gave a strong boost to Canadians’ free expression rights decades before they were enshrined in the Charter.

“Redford seems to have forgotten both her history and her law,” said Jacobsen. “Canadians don’t like being told what they can and can’t say. And we don’t want our free-expression rights used as bargaining chips in a fight between unions and politicians.”

About CJFE
CJFE monitors, defends and reports on free expression and access to information in Canada and abroad. Rooted in the field of journalism, we promote a free media as essential to a fair and open society. CJFE boldly champions the free expression rights of all people, and encourages and supports individuals and groups in the protection of their own and others' free expression rights.

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For more information please contact:

Tom Henheffer
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
416-515-9622, ext. 226
[email protected]