Amidst the ongoing chaos of COVID-19, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives are attempting to ram through a bill that will criminalize protests at so-called “critical infrastructure” sites such as roads and railways.
This proposed legislation is in clear response to direct actions conducted in early 2020 in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en struggle. In mid-February, a protest camp was established at a CN Rail line near Winnipeg that Manitoba Justice sought an injunction to dissolve. Soon after, Highway 75 near Morris, Manitoba, was also blockaded and resulted in a truck driver attempting to hit one of the demonstrators.
Justice Minister Cliff Cullen told the Winnipeg Sun about the bill: “The longer these blockades go on, the more damaging they can be to both the economy and people’s livelihoods. We’re trying to send a message, we don’t like the idea of blockades as it pertains to infrastructure, primarily roads and railroads.” In response, Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels identified the proposed legislation as an explicit attack on Indigenous peoples and pledged to challenge it in court if it passed.
As scholars Shiri Pasternak and Tia Dafnos argued in a 2017 journal article, “the securitization of ‘critical infrastructure’—essentially supply chains of capital, such as private pipelines and public transport routes—has become a priority in mitigating the potential threat of Indigenous jurisdiction.”
Manitoba’s bill comes on the heels of a similar piece of legislation passed in Alberta in June that results in fines of between $1,000 and $25,000 and/or six months of imprisonment. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) promptly launched a constitutional challenge of the bill in the courts. An online petition calling for the repeal of the bill has been signed by almost 400,000 people.
Canadian Dimension spoke with Mike Bagamery, an organizer with the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition (MEJC) about the province’s proposed bill and how we can fight back against it.
Canadian Dimension: What is Bill 57 and why is it a problem?
Mike Bagamery: Bill 57 is the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act (PCIA), which was introduced in the Legislature on November 2. The bill aims to further criminalize people participating in protests that block roads, railways, and potentially other infrastructure deemed “critical.” It’s a problem because the government is acting irresponsibly and undemocratically. They haven’t made the text of the bill publicly available, nor to our knowledge have they made it available to the opposition parties. We don’t expect the opposition parties will see what’s in the bill until just before the MLAs vote on it.
CD: Why do you think the government’s bringing in this bill now?
MB: I think the motivation for bringing in this bill now is partly that it’s a great time to hide something that would have terribly negative impacts on democracy. They gave it first reading the day the Winnipeg area went to Code Red and the rest of the province went to Code Orange on the Pandemic Response System. Beyond COVID-19, it could also be in part to consolidate power because they went from winning a true majority government in 2016 to a false majority in the snap election that they called just 15 months ago.
CD: What would it mean specifically for people who are involved in protest or land defence?
MB: We don’t know precisely what’s in it, so we can only speculate. Our best guess, though, is that it would have a chilling effect on people involved in forms of democratic expression like protests and land defences. Gatherings are currently restricted in Winnipeg to five people at most, even with appropriate social distancing. If that’s the part of COVID-19 that they want to normalize and institutionalize, no, we’re not on board with that.
CD: What’s the status of the bill? Do we have a sense of when they could try to push it through?
MB: Last month, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen introduced the PCIA for a first reading. As of today, December 3, it’s still only had the first reading along with a raft of other bills that have only gone to first reading. We don’t know just when the government is going to push this through. But they’re going to go forward with it—it’s going to be bad, and we’re going to fight it.
I’ve got in touch with my MLA, who is a New Democrat. He tells me that he and his caucus mates all oppose it. I’ve also reached out to the three Liberal MLAs and am waiting for a response from them. The problem, given the parliamentary dynamics and the parliamentary arithmetic, is that it’s usually a safe bet that all the government MLAs will vote for a government-sponsored bill and all the opposition MLAs will vote against it.
CD: We obviously know so little about the bill itself. What does this mean in terms of MEJC and other organizations trying to fight back against it?
MB: We’re not entirely fighting blind: even though we have little information about the PCIA itself, the title is very similar to the so-called Critical Infrastructure Defence Act (CIDA) that was passed in Alberta earlier this year. It defines “critical infrastructure” very broadly indeed. It bans blocking of railways, highways, refineries, mines, dams, and telecommunications installations, among other things. Convicted offenders can get six months in prison or a $25,000 fine.
Some legal experts from the University of Calgary published a two-part analysis of CIDA. Part one notes that it violates five different Charter rights: the right to freedom of expression as per section 2(b) of the Charter, freedom of peaceful assembly as per section 2(c), freedom of association as per 2(d), life, liberty, and security of the person as per section 7, and equality rights as per section 15. CIDA also violated Indigenous rights and infringed on the federal power to make criminal law.
A person could be thrown in prison for doing as little as holding up a banner and marching up and down the sidewalk.
CD: How can people who are concerned about this get involved to help fight back?
MB: Our plan is to drum up opposition in nine targeted constituencies that are represented by the nine Conservative MLAs who won with the smallest plurality this last year.
We’re going after Shannon Martin of McPhillips, Audrey Gordon of Southdale, Scott Johnston of Assiniboia, Len Isleifson of Brandon East, Brad Michaleski of Dauphin, Andrew Micklefield of Rossmere, James Teitsma of Radisson, Sarah Guillemard of Fort Richmond and Rochelle Squires of Riel. Assuming that every single MLA votes yes or no on this bill, we actually need only eight Conservative MLAs to vote no. But we’re targeting nine to give ourselves insurance, as it were. The theory is that those nine MLAs who represent those districts would be most receptive to the fact they are vulnerable to a small change in the way the voters in their constituencies vote; they can lose their seats more easily than, say, the premier [Brian Pallister] in Fort Whyte or the health minister [Cameron Friesen] in Morden-Winkler or the education minister [Kelvin Goertzen] in Steinbach.
MEJC has a letter-writing tool on our website and we’re encouraging people to not only use that but to try to set up Zoom calls for their MLAs if they live in one of those ridings.
CD: Any final thoughts?
MB: The justice minister has said only that the bill here in Manitoba will create a provincial offence for undue obstruction of critical infrastructure such as railways and highways, and create mechanisms to penalize anyone who participates in a blockade. We’re worried that both Manitoba’s and Alberta’s bills are prompted by solidarity protests led by land defenders in response to the RCMP’s invasion of unceded Wet’suwet’en territory just before the pandemic, as well as the struggle at 1492 Land Back Lane on Haudenosaunee territory. All these will have negative and disproportionate impacts on environmentalists, Indigenous people, and people who are both: Indigenous land defenders.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.