New legislation introduced by the Saskatchewan government will ban sidewalk protests from occurring within 50-metres of Saskatchewan hospitals, if passed.
The The Public Health (Safe Access to Hospitals) Amendment Act, 2021 received its first reading in the chamber Wednesday, taking Saskatchewan down a path other provinces have taken following a trend of COVID-19-related protests in health care settings.
The new legislation aims to “provide the ability to create and enforce safe access zones around hospitals, so that patients and health care providers are protected from harassment,” according to a supplied press release.
“Patients and families deserve to be able to access health services safely and without facing interference or intimidation,” Health Minister Paul Merriman said.
“This provision will also support our hospitals and staff in providing health services with safety, dignity and privacy.”
Speaking to Global News Wednesday afternoon, Saskatchewan Union of Nurses President Tracey Zambory said the legislation is “much needed”.
“This is what’s needed. I mean it came, really too late, with what’s happening in the last two weeks in Yorkton, and all the protests we saw earlier in the fall where health-care workers were being abused and treated horribly,” she said.
“We’re glad to see it’s coming into place now. It’s really needed.”
She said nurses and other health-care workers have , in some cases, been called “murderers and serial killers”.
“That was some of the worst members have had to go through being attacked by members of the general public.”
Zambory expressed concern, though, with a clause in the proposed legislation that would see the amendments expire after two years.
“It certainly has merit to go on longer. It really was introduced pre-pandemic to protect women going in for reproductive situations around abortion,” she said, referencing an NDP-led bill introduced earlier this year that would have led to the creation of a similar bubble zone around abortion clinics in Saskatchewan.
“It’s a constitutional right to be able to get care in a safe environment. This should be something that has no end. It should continue on into perpetuity,” she said.
Saskatchewan NDP leader Ryan Meili also took issue with the two-year life span of the amendments.
“This is a good thing to do. Let’s make sure people can go into hospitals without being harassed. It’s just horrible,” he told reporters Wednesday in the rotunda.
“But let’s not have a sunset clause, let’s make this a permanent thing. Maybe it won’t be a pandemic protest but it could be a protest about accessing reproductive care. And let’s look at all of the facility. There are medical abortions in clinic settings and places like Planned Parenthood. Why not include protections for anybody accessing medical care?”
Meili said he’s willing to work with government to speed up the bill’s passing if those concerns can be addressed.
“We’re keen to see this move forward as quickly as possible. We just saw the bill today. Details matter.”
Merriman, meanwhile, said the legislation “isn’t just for COVID-19” related protests.
But as for why the legislation is only set to be effective for two years, he said he hopes the province gets to a point where such protests are no longer occurring.
“I’m hoping we get to the situation where we don’t need something like this in Saskatchewan. If we need to extend it we’ll consider that at that point in time.
And as for why the pandemic has created a need for such legislation, Merriman said “there’s lots of factors”.
“People are stressed. People are polarized on various issues, and social media certainly has a role in this getting people like-minded, whether that’s in a positive or negative directions, and focusing them on a specific path,” he said.
Merriman said consequences for violation of the proposed law would be developed by the Ministry of Justice, but added he wants to ensure a “strong bill”.
The provincial release notes “lawful labour picketing will still be allowed within safe access zones.”
It also notes that “the legislation will also enable additional immunizers to support vaccination programs, including influenza vaccine, COVID-19 boosters and vaccines for children aged five to 11.