By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – The Manitoba government is transferring control over the legislature’s public rooms and outside grounds from government departments to the Speaker’s office — a move the Opposition New Democrats say is the start of a crackdown on public rallies and protests.
“I think that is clearly a step in trying to regulate and oppress the ability of Manitobans to gather on the legislative grounds for a myriad of different reasons,” New Democrat legislature member Nahanni Fontaine said Thursday.
“I think that it is so wholly disrespectful to Manitobans to try and limit their access … to what are grounds that belong to all Manitobans.”
The idea was first announced in the Progressive Conservative platform before the April 19 provincial election, and repeated recently in Premier Brian Pallister’s mandate letter to Justice Minister Heather Stefanson.
The idea, Stefanson said, is that legislature Speaker Myrna Driedger — an elected Tory — will be more non-partisan than the infrastructure or finance departments in deciding who can book meeting rooms in the legislature.
“I can recall in opposition … I tried to have some members of my constituency for an event but it was not allowed for some reason,” she said.
“It became a bit of a political decision because it was the government deciding and I think we need to depoliticize that.”
Fontaine does not accept that explanation. She pointed to an incident in 1996 when Premier Brian Pallister was minister of government services and prevented a group of anti-poverty protesters from camping on the legislature lawn.
At the time, Pallister said the government was not in the campground business and taxpayers shouldn’t be liable if anything were to happen to the protesters while on government property.
Currently, public access to the legislature — inside and out — is largely unfettered. Rallies and protests on the front steps and lawn are common, and multi-day protest camps on issues ranging from child welfare to missing and murdered indigenous women occur regularly.
Protesters are even helped by security personnel. If they give advance notice and book a time, they are provided a podium and public address system on the steps outside the legislature’s main door.
Stefanson said Thursday there is no intent to take away any of those rights.
“It’s certainly by no means our intent to prevent anyone from being able to access the building or anything.”
Driedger’s office declined an interview request Thursday, saying any discussion of possible changes to public access is premature because the transfer of authority has not yet happened.