British Columbia’s minister of public safety says the province is looking at “all possible options,” including so-called “bubble zones” and injunctions, after COVID-19 vaccine protesters targeted schools in the province’s interior.
“After the hospital protests we saw, the public were absolutely furious with what this small group of ‘covidiots’ were doing, it’s crossed a line,” Minister Mike Farnworth said Saturday.
“And now to be protesting at schools, where kids are there, who can be frightened and don’t know what’s going on? These people are just unbelievable. They’ve got no brains, frankly. It’s more than crossing a line.”
Farnworth said people trespassing on school property could also face criminal charges.
School District 83, which includes the North Okanagan and Shuswap regions, said it was putting all schools on a hold-and-secure procedure starting Monday, after COVID-19 demonstrators entered three Salmon Arm-area schools on Friday to serve what they called a “notice of vaccine liability” to their principals.
The incident prompted outrage from parents, who lit up social media with their concerns.
B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside called the incident “completely unacceptable.”
“Schools are vital for the educational, emotional, and social wellbeing of students. If people are unhappy about government policies, they should focus their dissatisfaction on the government – not at hospitals and not at schools,” Whiteside said in a statement.
“Schools are vital for the education, social and emotional wellbeing of students. All schools have health and safety protocols in place to protect students, teachers, and staff from COVID.”
Demonstrators said they were concerned teenagers could be vaccinated without their parent’s approval, amid pop-up vaccine clinics on high school grounds.
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Under British Columbia’s 1996 Infants Act, minors can consent to their own medical treatment if they are deemed to be sufficiently mature by a health-care provider. The COVID-19 vaccine is not currently being offered to youth under the age of 12.
On Wednesday, about 15 people showed up to the SD83 office, where they spoke with the superintendent for about two hours, according to the district. On Thursday, a group of people turned up during a pop-up vaccine clinic, and were eventually dispersed by police.
The school protests followed demonstrations outside of a number of B.C. hospitals earlier this month, which prompted massive public backlash.
On Saturday, rallies against vaccine passports and other COVID-19 regulations took place in cities across Canada, including a large march in Vancouver that ended without incident.
“Bubble zones,” which create a no-protest area for a given distance around a service or facility, were first legislated in British Columbia in 1995 in order to protect abortion clinics amidst aggressive protests and following the shooting of a B.C. abortion doctor.
“This was done to sort of protect folks who are accessing these services, to be able to access them safely, not be impeded by protesters, but also allow protesters to be able to express their perspective, their views, and as we all have under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Raji Mangat, executive director of Westcoast LEAF, which intervened in support of the zones during later legal challenges, told Global News.
“I think that they can provide a model for thinking about what is a way that balances people’s protected right to express themselves and protest, against the very important rights that people have to be able to access health care.”
Mangat said she believes bubble zones could be “workable” in the COVID-19 context but would require careful thought about how they were designed to ensure they were a proportionate response to the demonstrations.
She said the government would likely need a strong legal argument that it was not excessively infringing the right to protest, given the importance of schools and hospitals, and argue that demonstrators do not need to be at those facilities to make their point.
Lawyer and former Attorney General Wally Oppal said the hospital and school protests shared similarities in their impacts on health-care workers, patients, teachers and students.
He said that impact could give the government grounds to act.
“The question now is whether the conduct of the protesters fits into that category. Before a judge grants an injunction, the judge has to ensure that these people have gone beyond expressing themselves, freedom of association, all of those things,” Oppal said.
“It has been said they’ve gone into schools, interrupted classrooms, frightened kids, that might be enough for a judge to grant an injunction.”
In the meantime, SD83 says all exterior doors of its schools will be locked and anyone visiting will need to phone ahead to gain access to the properties.
The district said it is also working with the RCMP to ensure protests are kept away from all district properties.