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EDITORIAL: Overreaction on Parliament Hill

Amy Norman and Erin Saunders, Inuit land and water protectors from Happy Valley Goose Bay, address the media in Ottawa in West Block Monday. They were in the capital Monday to present a petition with 15,000 signatures calling on Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to take immediate measures to stop methylmercury poisoning due to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
Amy Norman and Erin Saunders, Inuit land and water protectors from Happy Valley Goose Bay, address the media in Ottawa in West Block Monday. They were in the nation's capital to try and present a petition with 15,000 signatures calling on Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to take immediate measures to prevent methylmercury poisoning from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. Instead, protesters were charged with trespassing. — SaltWire file photo

In the best light, it might simply have been overzealous security officials and stringent rules.

But it looks like yet another unforced error, and downright hideous optics.

After no one from federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s office would come down to receive a 15,000-name petition about methylmercury concerns at Muskrat Falls on Monday, 13 protesters were arrested on Parliament Hill, charged with trespassing, and later released with a 90-day ban from the seat of Canada’s government.

Leave aside the question of whether Canadians should have a right to access the seat of the federal government to make their concerns known for a moment. There’s also the fact that Parliament Hill is part of a huge block of currently unceded Algonquin land — a recognition of which is regularly acknowledged at the beginning of public events — and the protesters included Indigenous people from Labrador raising concerns about development on their ancestral lands.

It makes the charges of trespassing sound almost ludicrous.

Anyone who visits Parliament Hill knows how common protests are, and how smoothly the process regularly unfolds. In fact, you can even go on the Parliament Hill website and read the rules, which begin with, “To organize an event on the grounds of Parliament Hill — such as a protest, rally, fitness class, concert, festival, game or anything in between: apply for a permit; know the rules and ensure your guests do too; be prepared.”

There’s also the fact that Parliament Hill is part of a huge block of currently unceded Algonquin land — a recognition of which is regularly acknowledged at the beginning of public events — and the protesters included Indigenous people from Labrador raising concerns about development on their ancestral lands.

You can even download an application and request an electrical supply at the same time — though the government warns people to apply early, because the application process can take up to 10 business days. You can’t have balloons, barbecues or drones. You can’t hold your wedding on the grounds, but you can have your wedding photos taken there.

All in all, bringing your concerns to Parliament Hill is so common as to be a near-constant.

It’s hard to see why peaceful Indigenous protesters hoping to hand over a petition would have to be arrested. “I’ve been a part of other protests on the Hill and they kind of let you stand there with your signs and do your thing. … It was a very different kind of response,” protester Amy Norman told SaltWire Network.

It’s true that those involved in public protests sometimes deliberately push the boundaries in an effort to get arrested and raise more attention for their cause.

But at the same time, you’d think that cooler heads would prevail, especially at a time when the fallout from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women makes the concept of reconciliation seem suddenly further away, rather than close at hand.

Is it all that hard for a representative of the minister’s office to meet the group and take the petition? All that’s happened now is that the group has said it will have to try again to deliver its message.

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