Local activists are delighted that a group of city councillors moved quickly to kill a controversial proposal by Police Chief Julian Fantino that some felt would seriously curtail the actions of protesters on Toronto streets. On April 28, a standing-room-only crowd looked on as council’s planning and transportation committee unceremoniously quashed the chief’s bylaw plan without even debating its merits. The committee, at the urging of Councillor Kyle Rae (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), voted to “receive” the proposal, which is City Hall-speak for tossing a document into the abyss.

“I’m very happy,” said Rich Wyman, a member of the Coalition to Stop the War, after the vote. “This is a victory for us. What the chief’s proposals actually are is an encroachment of democratic rights, in essence saying you have to have permission to protest.”

“This is a very responsible decision,” said Bill Freeman, a writer who is active with Community AIR (Airport Impact Review) and the Writer’s Union of Canada, who attended the meeting. “This whole proposal smacks of a level of control that this city — that no city in Canada — should give to the police.”

Fantino, with the support of the Toronto Police Services Board, had asked council to consider enacting a bylaw that would have required anyone planning a protest to apply first to the Toronto Police Service for a permit. The proposal also asked that demonstrators post a bond to cover potential damage to public property, and that anyone who had previously been arrested at a demonstration be barred from organizing or participating in a protest for a period of two years. It was a plan that did receive support in some quarters, because of reports of vandalism and violence at certain local protests.

Norm Gardner, chair of the services board, expressed disappointment at the committee’s hasty handling of the request. “I think they should have discussed it, anyway,” he says. “To totally dismiss it was, I think, really inappropriate.”

Gardner says some sort of bylaw governing protests is needed to avoid cost overruns caused by overtime pay and to keep ambulance routes clear. He hopes council will resurrect the issue, but concedes that it is unlikely to do so.

Fantino has also asked the federal justice minister, Martin Cauchon, to amend the Criminal Code to allow for harsher punishments for protesters. While that matter doesn’t appear to have been decisively closed, Cauchon did indicate in a letter to the police services board that he is wary of unduly restricting the rights of protesters.

“I’m delighted that [the bylaw proposal] seems to be over for now,” says Josh Matlow of Earthroots, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was repackaged and tried to be sold again.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on May 1, 2003.

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