B.C. ‘shutdown’: Public service braces for protests

Public service boss says protestors’ conduct on throne speech day was ‘reprehensible’
Protest at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 11, 2020. Photo by Stacie Swain.
Your ad here
Don't like ads?
Automated ads help us pay our journalists, servers, and team. Support us by becoming a member today to hide all automated ads:
Become a member

In advance of large-scale protests expected at government buildings in Victoria tomorrow, the head of B.C.’s public service says responses to the police raid of Wet’suwet’en territory have gone too far and resulted in “physical and emotional abuse” of employees.

“People who merely wanted to access their place of work and provide service to the public of British Columbia were subjected to physical and emotional intimidation, physical blocking of access, and in some instances physical and emotional abuse,” wrote Don Wright, deputy minister to the premier and head of the province’s public service, in an email obtained by Ricochet that was sent to public service workers last night.

“I find this treatment of those serving the public to be reprehensible and unacceptable.”

On Tuesday, hundreds of people gathered around the B.C. legislature, blocking entrances and disrupting the delivery of the speech from the throne.

This afternoon it was reported that an injunction has been granted to allow the immediate arrest of anyone blocking an entrance to the legislature.

Protests across the country have multiplied since the RCMP began enforcing an injunction granted to pipeline company Coastal GasLink by clearing members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters from parts of their traditional territory. Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have not consented to the pipeline.

Wright ended his message to public service employees by asking them to prioritize their safety, be respectful of varying opinions on the issue, and share with their bosses any “information that could help maintain government operations or protect the emotional or physical safety of your colleagues.”

He did not respond to Ricochet’s request for comment before publication.

Union offers picket pay

In Victoria, supporters of the Wet’suwet’en are planning to establish picket lines around government buildings tomorrow morning as part of a call for a “BC government shutdown.”

The British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union says its members have the right not to cross a picket line. It plans to make picket pay available to members who are unable to make it to work and will not be paid by their employer.

“What’s of most importance to us is their safety,” said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith in a phone interview with Ricochet, “and should they choose to, that they exercise their rights … when it comes to safe work. Our advice to members is that it is a [picket] line until they hear differently.”

“My fervent hope is that there is resolution, and we encourage the space and the time for that to occur.”

Provincial ministries have been sending direction to employees in anticipation of tomorrow’s disruptions. Some public service workers will be allowed to work outside their office.

“While we respect the right to protest, protesters are not legally entitled to block you from entering the building in which you work,” read an email circulated to employees by multiple deputy ministers.

In the past, courts have interpreted the Charter right to free expression to include tolerating reasonable delays in accessing a workplace due to picketing. Tomorrow’s protest is scheduled to end at noon.

City councillor criticizes police department

Meanwhile, Victoria city councillor Ben Isitt had harsh words for his own police department following Tuesday’s protest.

The city’s police department stated it was investigating reports that people, including B.C. legislature staff, were assaulted and injured during the protest.

Isitt noted on Twitter that he was there observing all day and called the allegation that assaults and injuries had happened “hogwash designed to discredit Indigenous youth and their supporters.” On Thursday a team of legal observers who were present throughout the action at the legislature issued a statement.

In a later tweet responding to police chief Del Manak, Isitt said he stood by his criticisms and described “a growing problem of ‘mission creep’ with VicPD management,” which is “engaging in a PR campaign against peaceful demonstrators, city councillors & others advocating for change. These kind of political communications are outside of VicPD's mandate.”

Reached late Thursday night for comment, Isitt told Ricochet “February 11, 2020 was a historic day — the largest act of nonviolent civil disobedience in the history of Lekwungen territory (Victoria). We should ignore familiar tricks by corporate media and oil bosses to discredit the inspiring social movement led by Indigenous youth demanding action for decolonization and climate leadership.”

Full message from Don Wright

What follows is the email sent from Don Wright to public service employees.

I am sending this note to all public servants to address protests and demonstrations that have affected and could continue to affect service to the public and the sense of personal safety of public servants.

As most of you in the Victoria Capital Region know, two weeks ago the first floor of the Jack Davis Building (1810 Blanshard St.) in Victoria was occupied for close to 24 hours. Fortunately, it ended peacefully, but it was stressful for all who worked in that building and it was disruptive to government business. We did a post-incident analysis of the security deficiencies that contributed to this incident and have incorporated the lessons from that across government.

I am sure most of you from around the province are aware of the protest that blocked access to the Legislature yesterday. This protest spread to the Douglas Building (617 Government St.) in Victoria. We are also aware of protests that have happened in other parts of the province.

Protesters have the right of free speech, dissent and peaceful protest. These rights ensure that people who may disagree with the direction society is going on any particular issue are given a voice. These rights are an important part of how a democratic, pluralistic society mediates differences, seeks compromise and, paradoxically, comes together in a shared understanding of the path forward.

I am also acutely aware of the passion surrounding the two key issues motivating these recent protests – Indigenous rights and climate change.

Unfortunately, the events we saw over the last two weeks went beyond peaceful protest. People who merely wanted to access their place of work and provide service to the public of British Columbia were subjected to physical and emotional intimidation, physical blocking of access, and in some instances physical and emotional abuse. As Head of the Public Service, I believe I have an obligation to be very frank on this matter – I find this treatment of those serving the public to be reprehensible and unacceptable.

Employees in the Victoria Capital Region may also have seen or heard that there are plans by the same or related groups to “shut down as many BC government ministries as possible” in Victoria this Friday, February 14. It is important to note that we know very little about what is real and what is not real about the group’s plans, and whether there may be other plans in development. Nonetheless, we need to be prepared for any eventuality.

I want you all to know that the emotional and physical safety of public servants was our top priority as we prepared our plan on how to respond to this. We will not ask public servants to put themselves into any situation where they do not feel safe.

Taking that as our starting position, we have developed a flexible plan to maintain as much service to the public as is possible. You can expect to hear more about the details of this plan from your Deputy Minister on Thursday, February 13.

While we are immediately focused on responding to the potential situation in Victoria, we will use the same principles in responding to similar situations in other parts of British Columbia.

In the meantime, I would ask three things from each of you:

  1. Please ensure that your safety and that of your colleagues is your first priority. I repeat, we will not ask public servants to put themselves into any situation where they do not feel safe.

  2. If you hear of information that could help maintain government operations or protect the emotional or physical safety of your colleagues, please share that with your supervisor or your Deputy Minister.

  3. Please keep an open heart towards all of your colleagues who may have different opinions about the issues surrounding the protests. These are emotional issues about which people can have valid differences of opinion. We all bring our own personal history to these questions and it is important that we respect that. Please listen and seek to understand.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Don Wright

Deputy Minister to the Premier, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the BC Public Service

You might also be interested in...
'People can only use the tools they have,' says Black artist after terse CBC interview
Jerome Turner
June 18, 2020
Investigation: Montreal journalists face police intimidation, brutality when reporting at protests
Miriam Lafontaine
June 2, 2020
Ricochet’s Jerome Turner wins major journalism award for Wet’suwet’en coverage
Ricochet
May 31, 2020