Saturday, August 2, 2003

Showstoppers under the gun

Protest must be peaceful

Police to watch as Red Hill work begins

By Eric McGuinness The Hamilton Spectator, Saturday, August 2, 2003.
Hamilton police say they weren't consulted about a city letter threatening Red Hill Creek Expressway opponents with lawsuits or arrests for any attempts to delay construction. Deputy Chief Brian Mullan says police understand the city's position, but remain neutral in the dispute over putting a road through Red Hill Valley.

What will happen next week when the anti-expressway Union of Showstoppers says its members will use non-violent civil disobedience to halt construction?

Mullan says: "We acknowledge an individual's right to protest and demonstrate. We as a police service take the position that when possible we will facilitate that. When behaviour becomes unlawful and public safety is in jeopardy, we will step in and take the necessary steps to protect public safety."

Signs are already up warning that the area around Greenhill Avenue will be closed to the public at 7 a.m. Tuesday, and save-the-valley groups plan a rally at the site while it remains open. Organizers say there will be walks, talks and a mass photo shoot, among other activities, starting at 1 p.m. on Civic Holiday Monday. The gathering will be on the eastern edge of the valley, where Greenhill dead-ends off Mt. Albion Road.

Hamilton West NDP MPP David Christopherson, a mayoral hopeful and expressway critic who will speak at the rally, says the warning letter sent to selected expressway foes "sure smacks of bully tactics. Whether that was the intent or not, that's how it looks."

Former councillor Fred Eisenberger, also running for the mayor's chair, considers it "overkill" and "more than was necessary," although he supports the expressway and says everyone should accept that it's going ahead.
City manager Bob Robertson said yesterday the letter was approved by a staff-level committee he chairs, one that has consulted former deputy police chief Christine Silverberg, recently retained on Hamilton's behalf by the city's Red Hill lawyer, David Estrin. Silverberg, a former Calgary police chief, was used by the city last year in talks with native leaders concerned about the valley's archaeological sites.

An aide said Mayor Bob Wade wasn't available for comment yesterday and acting city solicitor Elaine Holt, author of the letter, did not return a call from The Spectator.

The letter, which Robertson says went to 10 to 20 people, said the city could file multimillion-dollar lawsuits against those delaying work and that those who couldn't pay might see their homes seized and sold.

Canadian environmental lawyer David Boyd calls it "extraordinary" and a "slick" move to intimidate protesters without letting them respond.

Boyd, a research associate at the University of Victoria and former executive director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, said it's not unusual for environmental activists to be sued, but the suits are generally used only to get a court injunction to stop demonstrations. They almost never go to court.

Boyd says what's unusual is that protesters haven't done anything to block construction, and it's a government going after environmentalists.

"That's what's odd about the situation. No one has done anything remotely unlawful. And in most cases, it's a corporation wearing the black hat, not a democratically elected government."

Boyd said defendants in a "strategic lawsuit to suppress public participation" have means to fight back, but Hamilton's letter only threatens legal action, so "there is little recipients can do to defend themselves. It's fairly slick for the city to do this by means of a threatening letter."

Julie Brezden, of the Red Hill Neighbourhood Association, complained yesterday the city hasn't consulted area residents about construction-related issues even though a recently distributed "neighbour's guide" said local issues were to be addressed at meetings in June and July.

Robertson offered no explanation for the lack of meetings, but said something could be set up quickly to answer questions.

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