Nelson council has decided to get a legal opinion on whether a right-to-life banner on Baker Street contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
There is no such banner on the street now, but in the past the group’s banners have been controversial. Various community groups pay the city to hang their banners for one week each year.
The agenda item at council’s March 4 meeting was intended to simply decide whether to discontinue hanging community banners at a second location, on the Civic Centre, for safety reasons, and that passed easily.
But then Councillor Brittny Anderson asked about council’s Community Flag and Street Banner Policy which, quoting the Charter, states all banners must be “free of any demeaning, derogatory, exploitative or unfair comment or representation based on race, colour, ancestry, ethnic origin, creed, religious affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age, marital, or family status.”
Anderson wanted to know how council would decide whether the Nelson Right to Life banner violates the charter.
City manager Kevin Cormack suggested council could get a legal opinion on this.
“According to the government of Canada,” Anderson said, “sexual and reproductive rights is not only a health issue but also considered a human rights and gender equality issue. I think we need to have clarification in the policy of something I believe infringes on the Charter. I do understand the freedom of speech argument and think there should be freedom of speech, but we also need to hold up the sexual and reproductive rights of women.”
Councillors Jesse Woodward and Rik Logtenberg said the banner, because of its location, seems to be an endorsement from the city. Woodward said this is confusing if the banner is placed by a group that opposes other groups.
“That banner is in a prominent spot and is for many people their first experience of Nelson, and the groups that have that banner are branding the city with that event,” Logtenberg said.
“Do we want to say, ‘Welcome to Nelson, it’s Right-to-Life Week?’”
Cormack said banners are not meant to be endorsements.
“It is for groups to advertise events, like National Nurses Week,” he said. “Council is not there to make judgements.”
Last year there were banners on 19 of 52 weeks, placed by such groups as the LVR grads, Dance Umbrella, Elephant Mountain Literary Festival, the Kalein Centre, Kootenay Pride, the Nelson Road Kings, and the Selkirk College Fine Woodworking show, as well as Nelson Right to Life.
Last year’s Nelson Right to Life banner read: “Right to Life Week. Speaker, Nov. 8, 7 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre. Walk for Life, Nov. 11, 2 p.m. at Lakeside Park.”
The city’s banner policy states the “community flag and banner program is to help promote community occasions or events of a cultural, social, environmental or recreational nature and shall not be used to make a statement of any kind. Occasions, events or announcements shall be specific happenings within the community.”
Mayor John Dooley said if council gets a legal opinion, council would have to live with the result.
“We have to keep in mind that if the opinion comes back and says this policy is fine, then it’s done,” Dooley said.