Letter: New Election sign by-law tramples freedom of expression

Lori Paras
Lori Paras

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King Jr.

By Lori Paras

THUNDER BAY – LETTERS – On June 27, 2022, City Council and Administration rushed through an “election sign by-law” supposedly treating municipal, provincial, and federal elections equally, but slyly changing the rules of procedure for municipal elections, while trampling on the freedom of expression rights of individuals and businesses in Thunder Bay. Although the City Clerk has the power under the Municipal Elections Act to make certain changes during an election, the Clerk must be careful not to infringe on the Charter of Rights.

On June 27, council unanimously voted in favour of this new election sign by-law, even after the Neebing Ward Councillor, who is a lawyer, said at the June 6 council meeting that the by-law looked like a “cut and paste job”, and questioned if a new by-law was needed. Also, during the June 6 council meeting, the Deputy City Clerk told council that the number one reason for building the stand alone sign by-law was due to candidates placing signs on public property. Many municipalities in Ontario allow this as they designate municipal lands and roadways to support the election. This could be done in Thunder Bay.

The new sign by-law says that candidates, even the ones who were given permission by the city clerk’s office to start their campaigns on May 2, 2022 and were working under the previous sign by-law, were now not allowed to erect signs, purchase billboard ads, or place advertising on vehicles until August 23. Candidates would also not be allowed to place campaign signs outside their wards. Business owners were now restricted to a single sign on their property to support their candidates per 500 meters of frontage. (that’s the length of 5 football fields) A business now had to choose to either display the sign of one favoured candidate, perhaps offending some customers, or not participate in the election at all.

The change of date disparaged early candidates’ reputations as it seemed they did not know what they were doing, some incurred financial loss, and although council may not have intended, it gave incumbents an unfair advantage. It also took away the right of citizens to express their support of candidates until the government told them they could.  There were also discrepancies in the new by-law that had rules for municipal ‘wards’ that seemed not to apply for provincial and federal ‘ridings’.

In 2002, Steven J. O’Melia, a Kitchener lawyer who specializes in municipal planning wrote in a paper titled, Freedom of Expression and Sign By-Laws in Canada, “To date, each time the Supreme Court has granted leave to appeal in municipal sign by-law cases it has subsequently declared the impugned by-laws to be unconstitutional. While the Court’s reasoning in these cases has been instructive, it has been focused on circumstances where the constitutional rights of perceived or imputed “underdogs” were at stake”. I believe his claim would hold true today.

This new election sign by-law matters, as it may open the door to move forward with election sign fees and more restrictions as seen in other municipalities across the province.  Just because you are given a right to change something does not mean you should, but if you do, you have a duty of care to your citizen to not step on the right of freedom of expression guaranteed in the Charter of Rights. You should not give different rules for municipal elections, and you must be careful to not to give an unfair advantage to incumbent candidates.

Lori Paras
Candidate: McKellar Ward

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