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Vaughan mayor proposes banning protests near places of worship, schools and hospitals

Vaughan city council is set to consider a draft policy by Mayor Steven Del Duca that  would ban demonstrations within 100 metres of places of worship, child-care centres, schools and hospitals. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Vaughan city council is set to consider a draft policy by Mayor Steven Del Duca that would ban demonstrations within 100 metres of places of worship, child-care centres, schools and hospitals. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The mayor of Vaughan is proposing to introduce a bylaw that would prohibit protests outside of places of worship, schools, child-care facilities and hospitals — something that one expert says goes "too far" in restricting people's rights and freedom of expression.

At a news conference Monday, Mayor Steven Del Duca said he is bringing forward a draft policy for city council to consider. If passed, the policy would help protect these facilities from protests and demonstrations that "incite hatred, intolerance and violence, and seek to intimidate residents."

The proposed bylaw would prohibit demonstrations within 100 metres of those spaces. Anyone who violates the bylaw could be fined up to $100,000.

"What we are witnessing represents a wake-up call," Del Duca said Monday.

"A wake-up call that requires a call to action to protect vulnerable social infrastructure here in our community and to protect the individual residents who use that infrastructure."

The announcement comes on the heels of several recent demonstrations that took place in Thornhill outside a synagogue. Three people were charged following a protest on March 7 where demonstrators said they gathered to decry a real estate event that marketed occupied land in the West Bank. Counter-protesters showed up in response to a call-out from leaders of the synagogue.

Police would not confirm whether the accused were with the pro-Palestinian demonstrators or with the counter-protesters.

The mayor said Monday that the "large, ugly protests," which have taken place near synagogues and schools in Thornhill were "deeply, deeply concerning to our residents."

Earlier this month, Del Duca, among other local politicians including Vaughan Coun. Gila Martow, MPP Laura Smith and MP Melissa Lantsman, penned a joint statement ahead of the March 7 protest, calling it "unacceptable that a place of worship" be targeted by protesters.

Del Duca said Monday the demonstrations have not been peaceful or respectful, adding that "enough is enough.

"Last November, some of our residents had to contend with anti-Semitic graffiti at the Chabad House of Maple and then just a few days later there was a bomb threat that was made against the Jaffari Community Centre," he said.

"Everyone, every single person living here in our city deserves to be safe and to feel safe."

'Clamping down' on freedom of expression: expert

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, executive director and general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said there is cause for concern that the bylaw would crack down on "lawful, constitutionally protected expression, peaceful assembly and protest rights," adding that the number of places listed in the draft policy is "already problematic.

"The kind of restriction that we're seeing in this [policy] is going too far in clamping down on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly rights," said Mendelsohn Aviv.

"It doesn't mean that police shouldn't be protecting religious institutions that have been targeted from criminal activities — they can and they should."

Pro-Palestine protesters wave flags facing a pro-Israel demonstration in front of a synagogue hosting "the Great Israeli Real Estate Event," in Thornhill, Ont., Thursday, March 7, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Pro-Palestine protesters wave flags facing a pro-Israel demonstration in front of a synagogue hosting "the Great Israeli Real Estate Event," in Thornhill, Ont., Thursday, March 7, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Pro-Palestinian protesters wave flags facing a pro-Israel demonstration in front of a synagogue hosting 'the Great Israeli Real Estate Event,' in Thornhill, Ont., Thursday, March 7, 2024. The draft policy proposed by Del Duca would prohibit demonstrations within 100 metres of places of worship. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Mendelsohn Aviv added that inciting violence and engaging in criminal harassment — which the mayor said the bylaw would help tackle — are illegal activities, regardless of where they are committed.

"It's not clear what this bylaw is doing that is helpful but it is clear what it is doing that's harmful to people's rights to express themselves," Mendelsohn Aviv said.

"There are so many different ways in which people need to be able to have their voices heard in different places and so an overbroad ban on protests is problematic.

"It is important that the government not go too far in setting up those limits in keeping protesters away from where they can be seen by the public," she added.

Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups react

Meanwhile, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said they welcomed the announcement in a joint statement Monday.

"CIJA has been advocating for strengthened measures, including Safe Access legislation, to curtail months of targeted demonstrations marked by antisemitic chants, hateful signs and physically intimidating behaviour impacting Jewish residents at community institutions," the statement reads.

"Whether at a house of worship, a community centre, or a school, people should never have to walk through hateful demonstrations simply to participate in community life."

The organizations added that they are urging city council to "swiftly" pass the motion.

But Dalia Awwad, a member of Palestinian Youth Movement, said banning the protests infringes on peoples' freedoms and right to protest, regardless of where these demonstrations are held.

"There's a question of what people are protesting and that piece is missing here. People have not been protesting religious institutions because they are religious institutions," Awwad said.

"People are protesting religious institutions that are being used as spaces to facilitate ethnic cleansing and genocide and that is something that I think people should protest."

York Regional Police supports the creation of the bylaw, said spokesperson Andy Pattenden, which he said the service anticipates will help in "minimizing the impact that protests are having on the affected communities."

"York Regional Police believes in the fundamental right to peaceful freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Human Rights Code but this must be balanced with the right to a safe environment for all members of the community," Pattenden said in an email to CBC Toronto Tuesday.