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Doug Ford government could face court challenge over upcoming anti-blockade bill

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford could face a court challenge over promised legislation that would prevent demonstrators from blocking access to critical infrastructure, such as highways, border crossings and hospitals, according to a civil liberties advocate.

In the wake of the blockades at the Ambassador bridge and in the City of Ottawa, Ford declared a province-wide state of emergency on Feb. 11 and promised to codify the new measures into law once the Ontario legislature returns on Feb. 22.

“I'll tell you what will be permanent, we're (not) gonna allow people to block $700 million of trade every single day,” Ford told reporters at a news conference on Friday.

“There's absolutely no way that people are going to go [to Windsor] and block a trading corridor, like the Ambassador Bridge. It's unacceptable”

While the details of the legislation have yet to be revealed, the orders under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA) offer insight into how the province would protect critical infrastructure, including the 400-series highways; airports; hospitals; utilities; international and provincial border crossings; ports; railways and COVID-19 vaccine clinics.

The orders give police the power to remove vehicles being used as blockades and “suspend or cancel driver’s licence” or the licence plate portion of the driver’s Commercial Vehicle Operator Registration. Ford promised owners could also be hit with fines of $10,000 and up to a year in jail, although those penalties aren’t specifically outlined in the EMCPA.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), which is currently challenging the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act, said the Ford government’s upcoming legislation would be “too broad” and a “knee jerk” reaction to the occupations of the Ambassador Bridge and downtown Ottawa.

“There could be times when those powers don't make any sense, that those powers would be used by police to shut down a protest that really isn't causing the types of disruptions that we've seen in Ottawa,” said Abby Deshman, the director of the criminal justice program with the CCLA.

“That's a very, very unique situation that, frankly, we haven't seen before. So to pass legislation like that, that's so broad on the basis of one example, that could impact all protests going forward is really concerning,” Deshman told CTV News Toronto.

Ford insisted the government would protect the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest, but said his cabinet would still have to deliberate the specifics of the new law.

“I've always said from day one, I’ll always protect the freedoms and liberties of people to go and protest,” Ford said.

The progressive conservative government, however, could find itself gaining support from opposition parties that have tabled their own legislation to restrict protesters from blocking access to healthcare and vaccination settings.

Bill 2, tabled by the Ontario Liberals in October, would create “safe zones” around hospitals, schools and daycares, and protesters who harass employees would face fines ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 and up to six months in jail. The bill never made it past first reading in a legislative process controlled by the Progressive Conservative Party.

The Ontario NDP also proposed legislation in October that would prohibit protests in provincially-designated safe zones, with fines of up to $25,000. That bill was defeated in the legislature by a vote of 46 to 20 – all of the votes against were cast by the Ontario PC Caucus, including the Attorney General.

Joel Harden, the NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre, said the Ford government should have slapped blockading truckers with “immediate and huge economic sanctions on licencing and insurance” and indicated any legislation should prevent similar blockades.

“It should not be appropriate to utilize commercial and personal vehicles to station in the downtown area for 25 days,” Harden told CTV News Toronto.

The CCLA argues, however, that police forces already possess the power to implement crowd and traffic control measures – such as the restrictions in place around Queen’s Park in Toronto – and the ability to tow vehicles that are blocking traffic.

“Police can tow vehicles that are blocking streets,” Deshman said. “If you park illegally, whether it be in the middle of the street, whether it be in a no parking zone, your car can be towed. So that's not a legal problem.”

Deshman said any legislation that limits constitutional rights typically faces court challenges, and said the Ford government could once again find itself being taken to court.

“I would anticipate that if this is too broad, if it's too sweeping and it's not nuanced enough you'd see the similar thing,” Deshman said.

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