The voice of Alberta’s official opposition will be absent from the legislative assembly’s debate and vote on Bill 9 – legislation currently being considered by the provincial government that would establish safe, protest-free access zones of 50 metres around women’s health clinics.
Airdrie MLA Angela Pitt announced her intention to abstain from the vote April 10, when the bill was presented for second reading. According to Pitt, the introduction of the bill was an “obviously cynical political game” on the part of the sitting NDP government.
“This is clearly a move by the party to distract from their horrible budget and the other issues that are real and prevalent in everyday Albertans’ lives,” she said. “This is not an issue that I’ve ever heard, ever, in any circle, from any constituent, at any time.”
However, according to Celia Posyniak, executive director of the Kensington Clinic in Calgary, the safety of both health-care workers and patients accessing legal health services has been compromised by anti-choice protestors, mainly from religious groups and churches, “since the day (the clinic) opened.”
“They heckle patients, they have obnoxious, rude signs and, sometimes, they’ll try to get up close to women and take pictures – all sorts of stuff goes on,” Posyniak said. “They could be working at food banks or homeless shelters and doing useful things – harassing women does not fall into that social service activity that churches usually do.
“We became very tired of it, and years ago stopped seeing it as a legitimate form of protest. It’s designed to intimidate women and staff.”
Posyniak said the clinic started appealing to the then-conservative government to intervene in the 1990s, but the request was “ignored.” Court injunctions were established in the early 2000s, she said, to create “bubble zones” around clinics – limiting the number of protestors permitted at one time and barring them from accessing the sidewalk immediately adjacent to the facility.
But according to Posyniak, these regulations are often disregarded by protestors.
“There have been no complaints in the last 20 years, in regard to the court injunctions, or breaches since they have been in place,” Pitt said. “If members in the government feel this isn’t adequate and the police aren’t doing their job, perhaps the solicitor general should be stepping in.”
When the protesting began to escalate in January 2017, Posyniak said, she arranged meetings with MLAs and the Minister of Health to bring the issue to their attention. A year later, Bill 9 was introduced to address the ongoing concerns.
“It’s not about whether someone should or shouldn’t have an abortion – it’s about whether women deserve to be harassed when they access these legal services,” said Cam Westhead, MLA for Banff-Cochrane. “There is a counterargument to our bill where people feel this might be limiting their freedom of speech, but nobody is being silenced.”
According to Westhead, defending this concern is an important part of the role of the official opposition. When members of the legislative assembly choose not to participate in the debate, he said, the voices of the Albertans who elected those members aren’t being represented.
“For me to make my decision, I want to know what those people think,” he said.
“People didn’t elect us to, when times are tough, walk away from tough discussions. Our job is hard, but we owe it to the people who elected us to do our job.”
Posyniak said she is disappointed the United Conservative Party (UCP), including leader Jason Kenney, is presenting the debate as a “partisan issue.” Throughout the past year, she said, provincial governments in Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland all debated and voted on similar legislation to protect patients and health-care workers from harassment.
“In all three cases, the vote was in favour of the legislation – nearly unanimous,” she said.
“So, social conservatives in those provinces got it. What can’t they see here?”
According to Pitt, the debate is a “non-issue” for her constituents – the people she represents, she said, are more interested in discussing “jobs and the economy.”
“Our official opposition is not interested in playing political games with this government on an issue that is not front and centre for any Albertan I’ve ever talked to,” she said.
“I think it’s time for us to move on to issues that matter.”