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Shouted down

Maclean Kay: Throne Speech day was completely overshadowed by the most aggressive protest at the legislature since the ‘War in the Woods’ fracas in the ‘90s.
The view from above the rear entrance, as MLAs try to enter the legislature.

Around 8:35 am, I was walking into the legislature. The anti-LNG pipeline protest opposed to Coastal GasLink’s operations in Wet’suwet’en lands, was still on the front steps and lawn, but things were in motion.

As I walked by, an organizer was directing and dividing protesters into groups. Each was being assigned an entrance to the legislature.

It seemed like getting inside sooner rather than later was wise. It turned out to be the right call.

Just a few minutes later, protesters started blocking the four main entrances to the legislature, as well as the two wheelchair-accessible entrances.

At first, staff, MLAs and media were able to enter. They were shouted at, sometimes within spittle distance – but (mostly) untouched. That didn’t last.

My vantage point from the press gallery is over the main rear entrance, what is called the Speaker’s Courtyard. It’s the entrance nearest to the main MLA parking lot, and so is probably the access point most used by MLAs (but by no means all.)

The first MLA I saw denied entry was Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson.

After that, legislature security staff began to escort MLAs, both individually and in small groups, into the building.

That, too, did not last.

Soon, protesters denied entry to anyone – MLAs, staff, ministers, and media. Some managed to get in later. Others, such as Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham didn’t appear to come back at all.

Unfortunately, things got more heated. We heard of at least one, possibly two MLAs injured (not seriously, thankfully.) At least one female staffer was struck on the head, and spat on. Another received a bloody nose. Building staff were not exempt, right down to interns and cleaners. Victoria Police later confirmed they were investigating assaults.

Things moved quickly from there. The morning sitting was cancelled, which warrants a quick aside. On Throne Speech day, the morning's business usually just takes some 10 minutes. The Lieutenant-Governor arrives, prorogues (basically, formally closes) the current session of parliament…and that’s pretty much it. Later that afternoon, she reads the Speech from the Throne, the formal opening to every new session of parliament.

Contrary to some reports (and fears), the afternoon's Throne Speech went ahead as scheduled,  minus any of the usual pomp and ceremony. The Lieutenant-Governor arrived (it’s still not clear how, which is probably for the best), delivered it, and left.

Yesterday’s Throne Speech touted the NDP record, but was a bit vague on things to come. Supporters will point to hints about fighting renoviction, paid days off for people fleeing domestic violence, more MRI machines, and an expected – but not explicitly confirmed – plastic bag ban.

There were also some more curious items. However worthy the cause, it’s not at all clear that cell phone bills or guns in schools are something this or any provincial government can do much about.

What’s the Throne Speech, you ask? While it’s given by the Lieutenant-Governor, it’s written by staff in the Premier’s Office, sent to Government House for approval, and there is usually some minor haggling over language and phrasing. It’s viewed as a marker; a mission statement for the government – a chance to brag about what they’ve done, and all the great stuff they’re going to do in the coming months. In that respect, most of them sound more or less the same. (I wrote six of them.) But given what was happening outside, this one felt a little off.

Throne Speeches are not written the night before. Whoever wrote the speech could not possibly have known what was to happen at the legislature that day. But in real time, no acknowledgment whatsoever that the legislature was being barricaded made the speech seem sound dated, if not slightly tone deaf. But again – there was simply no way around that.

The contents of the speech itself probably deserve more than two paragraphs, but even Premier John Horgan seemed to concede it was destined to be overshadowed by the protest. He cancelled his customary media availability, and exited the chamber without so much as a glace to reporters waiting for him outside – very much out of character for him.

During the speech itself, protesters left all but the front entrance, gathering to hear the speech. When it was over, they quickly re-deployed – more than one observer commented on how well organized they were.

However and whoever was directing traffic, protesters were shortly back at their “posts,” and screaming “shame” (and worse) at whoever left the building, from staff, to interns, to cleaners.

I left a couple of hours later. By then, things had mostly calmed down; I received a half-hearted “shame,” one “pig” and one recommendation to have sex with myself – but that’s all, and nobody touched me or even got particularly close.

Others got much worse. As to where we go from here, today at least, it's business is usual. How long that will last is anyone's guess.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca


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