Tue, December 21, 2004

Activists guilty of trespass

A GROUP of activists found guilty yesterday of trespassing during a peaceful protest at Queen's Park are vowing to fight the conviction "all the way to the Supreme Court." Five members of Toronto Action for Social Change, who had been banned for life from Queen's Park, were found guilty yesterday of trespassing at the legislature in 1999.

Despite finding them guilty, Justice Joseph Bovard gave each an absolute discharge and commended the group for helping the disadvantaged and creating the kind of peaceful, social dialogue that strengthens democracies.

Bovard said the group had suffered enough by being banned for six years from Queen's Park, where they have protested government policies.

Matthew Behrens, Amanda Hiscocks, Donald Johnston, Sandra Lang and Rev. Robert Holmes, a Roman Catholic priest, were barred from the legislative grounds in October 1998 after a protest against government social policies.

They threw fake theatrical blood at a wall of the legislature.

On Jan. 18, 1999, the five defied the order with a second "prayer" protest and were charged with trespassing.

In their court defence, they argued that the ban violated their Charter rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

The ban was lifted in August so it was not an issue addressed by Bovard.

"We're very disappointed with this because we feel the power to ban people is a very dangerous one," Behrens said. "We didn't do anything wrong in the first place."

Behrens immediately said the group will appeal the decision. "We're going all the way to the Supreme Court," he vowed.

Before Bovard made his decision to give each person an absolute discharge, Behrens made an impassioned speech in court in which he said the group was following in the footsteps of the late U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

"I am proud of what I did," Behrens said. "We are going to continue protesting."

The Crown attorney was seeking a $500 fine for each of the five people convicted.

Behrens said in court that his conscience would never allow him to pay a fine for trespassing.

In 2001, a justice of the peace had cleared the activists of trespassing and ruled that they had a right to protest peacefully at Queen's Park, even though they had been barred from demonstrating.