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RCMP overstepped in shutting down Surrey protest for India’s farmers, organizers say

Click to play video 'Fallout over Surrey RCMP’s decision to shut down a planned Indian farmers protest in Cloverdale' Fallout over Surrey RCMP’s decision to shut down a planned Indian farmers protest in Cloverdale
Police say they had no choice but to turn away demonstrators, citing COVID-19 safety protocols. But organizers dispute that -- saying they were being unfairly targeted. Grace Ke reports – Jan 17, 2021

Organizers of a planned drive-in demonstration in support of protesting farmers in India say the Surrey RCMP overstepped its authority in shutting down the event before it even started.

The Surrey Challo event was billed as a COVID-safe, music-focused demonstration, scheduled to take place at the Cloverdale Recreation Centre.

On Saturday, Mounties stepped in and blocked the site saying that the event would violate COVID-19 restrictions and put public safety at risk.

Click to play video 'Demonstrators scramble after Surrey RCMP shut down drive-in event backing Indian farmers' Demonstrators scramble after Surrey RCMP shut down drive-in event backing Indian farmers
Demonstrators scramble after Surrey RCMP shut down drive-in event backing Indian farmers – Jan 16, 2021

RCMP Insp. Dale Carr told Global News police expected up to 10,000 participants, and that the event — which was to feature musicians and a stage — was more akin to a festival than a protest.

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Activist group Avaaz claims one person was issued a $2,300 fine for hosting a COVID-19 non-compliant event “simply for attending the protest and speaking with the RCMP.”

Read more: Demonstrators scramble after RCMP shuts down drive-in event backing Indian farmers

The group says the event was compliant with COVID-19 health and safety protocols required under B.C.’s most recent provincial health order, which allows for drive-in events.

“(The) protest was organized with a COVID-safety plan that would meet all the conditions of the Provincial Health Order, including limiting the total number of vehicles, people remaining in vehicles, compliance with the physical distancing requirement if outside their vehicle, mandatory mask-wearing, and gathering of contact information,” it said in a media release.

“Audio was to be delivered by radio broadcast.”

It goes on to accuse the RCMP of exaggerating the number of people who would have attended as a justification for shutting down the event, and says police did not attempt to verify the event’s COVID-19 safety plan.

On Sunday, Surrey RCMP Cpl. Joanie Sidhu confirmed that the fine had been given out to someone police had identified as an organizer.

She said police respect the right to protest, and have supported previous events supporting the same cause.

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But she said this time, police were unable to reach anyone ahead of time who would step up as an organizer, and that the risk of COVID-19 transmission was too high, given what police saw.

“We received information that there were going to be numerous vendors at this event, which included a DJ as well as food trucks, and in fact, when our officers were at the event turning people away there were actually food trucks arriving,” she said.

“This is concerning, because while organizers were saying they were encouraging people to stay in their vehicles, having vendors such as these encourages people to actually get out of their vehicles.”

The BC Civil Liberties Association has also weighed in, calling the shutdown an “affront” to the right to protest.

Read more: The uprising of India’s farmers: The significance and history behind the worldwide protests

“Freedom of expression and freedom of association are fundamental democratic rights that must be respected,” BCCLA lawyer Meghan McDermott said in a statement.

“This was an event that took safety measures and provincial health orders seriously but was arbitrarily and unjustly shut down by the Surrey RCMP even before any opportunity for alleging non-compliance arose. ”

Click to play video 'B.C. farmers organize New Year’s Day convoy to show solidarity' B.C. farmers organize New Year’s Day convoy to show solidarity
B.C. farmers organize New Year’s Day convoy to show solidarity – Jan 1, 2021

Farmers in India have been protesting since late November against new agricultural laws they say will eliminate minimum pricing they rely on to survive.

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The movement has borne a number of solidarity protests around the world in cities with large South Asian populations, many who retain close ties to friends and family in India.

B.C.’s Lower Mainland has seen multiple solidarity protests and rallies through December and January.

Another rally in support of Indian farmers was scheduled for 11 a.m., starting in the 21000-block of 64th Avenue in Langley.