As of yesterday, 58 Palestinian children have been killed by the Israel Defense Forces in pointed attacks on civilians. The Medicins Sans Frontiers clinic was bombed. The Associated Press/Al-Jazeera offices destroyed. Yet, justifying ticketing participants in Saturday’s Free Palestine car rally, Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella called the rally an “illegal gathering, and the time for demonstrations and protests “isn’t now.” If not when children are being massacred, medical relief is under fire, and the press has been silenced, then, when?
Last Saturday, the Halifax Regional Police responded to the Free Palestine protest at the same time as the anti-mask “Freedom Nova Scotia” rally on Citadel Hill. Not only do anti-maskers promote misunderstanding about the value of personal protective equipment in disease prevention, the anti-mask movement is associated with racism and white supremacy.
The day before the rallies, Premier Iain Rankin sought — and received — a court injunction against such public gatherings. Supreme Court of Nova Scotia Justice Scott Norton issued the injunction, prohibiting any rally that contravenes the province’s public health orders, and organizers from promoting rallies on social media. The injunction authorizes police to enforce compliance with public health orders.
Rankin sought the injunction in response to public demand. Until the injunction was issued, social media was ablaze with condemnation of rule-breakers and of the provincial government for failing to crack down.
As a nurse, I share in the wide disappointment that our effective inter-provincial isolation rules were not failproof. I wish we really were all in this together. But the solution cannot be to abandon our Charter right to peaceful public assembly. Limits can only be justified where harm is proven.
Rankin sought the injunction not because banning protests is a proven epidemiological strategy to contain disease transmission, but because he believed it to be politically expedient. He is precariously situated as a new leader in a crisis time, facing election within the next few months, and is trying to do whatever he can to continue in his role.
But the virus is airborne: outdoor activity is the safest thing to do right now. Enormous, consistent protests around the world all last spring and summer against racist police brutality did not result in reported transmissions of COVID-19.
The Halifax Regional Police charged with enforcing the injunction are the same police we protested, the same police we petitioned to defund. The same police who were proven to be harmful: the Wortley report of 2019 demonstrated they are racist, and target Black people for street checks six times more often than white people. The MacDonald-Taylor report found their actions to be illegal. These are the same police who punched young mother Santina Rao in the face in front of her children on suspicion of shoplifting produce. The same police who left Corey Rogers to asphyxiate to death in a spit hood in their holding cells. The same police who botch and ignore investigations into sexual assault, such as that experienced by Carrie Low. Rather than see decreases in their funding after so many protests, these police received an increase in funding in 2021 to cover the cost of new staff to manage complaints against them.
Policing has not solved the pandemic. Nova Scotia police have issued approximately $1 million in tickets while the province is experiencing one of the greatest economic threats in memory.
Individual participants in the Free Palestine rally face $2,000 fines. Noncompliance with the injunction risks receiving a criminal record.
People — many of whom would describe themselves as progressive — who called for policing of anti-maskers must accept that policing will not just target those who are so privileged that masks are the hill they choose to die on. Policing is not nuanced. Police will come for those who are protesting the killing of children, the destruction of medical facilities, the suppression of the free press. It will come for those who protest police brutality.
The injunction, like many things this pandemic, was hastily conceived, and can and should be reversed. It is OK to be wrong and change course. Last year our parks and playgrounds were closed — Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Strang recognized this caused ill-health, and they were reopened. We do not need to ban political protests because there were 50 people who wanted to stand up for the “cause” of masklessness.
The vast majority of Nova Scotians are caring for each other, are trying our best, are wearing masks, and are stepping up. We have the highest testing rate in the country, if not the world, because volunteers step up to fill their days at the pop up service. We are struggling through a third wave, yes, but we will get through.
And we can do it without sacrificing our right to demonstrate for social justice.
Martha Paynter is a Registered Nurse, a Trudeau Scholar, and Doctoral Candidate at Dalhousie University. She is the Founder and Chair of Women’s Wellness Within.