June 17, 2020 elicited mixed emotions from different cross-sections of Albertans. Bill 1, which criminalizes “trespassing on, destroying, damaging, and obstructing the use or operation of any essential infrastructure”, was given royal assent and came into effect immediately. The bill, commonly known as the Critical Infrastructure Defense Act, has caused both despair and hope, with some decrying a loss of freedoms and others applauding the government’s protection of a struggling industry.

Although Bill 1 mostly adds to the federal criminal code and provincial trespass acts, it has earned both praise and reprimand for its goal of shielding companies’ “essential infrastructure” from the destruction caused by “blockades, protests or similar activities”.

The bill has faced criticism for its particular method of enforcement. It relies on accumulative punishment, in which individual protesters can be faced with a minimum fine of $1,000 and a maximum fine of $20,000, as well as jail time of up to 6 months, depending on the length of the occupation. At the session where the bill was ultimately passed, there was a notable lack of discussion about such peculiarities: notably, only Calgary-Mountain View MLA Kathleen Ganley called to modify the framing of phrases like “essential infrastructure”, which she argued could be wielded to harm innocent pedestrians due to its broad implications. Though concern was voiced by the opposition, the bill was passed with a large majority.

Many Albertans, particularly those working in and directly benefiting from the profits of the province’s oil sector, are understandably in favour of the bill. It would, at last, provide the legal grounds to prohibit disruptive protests which may interrupt construction and create problems for workers, who are often caught in the crossfire between protestors and multinational corporations. However, critics of the bill are claiming that it directly opposes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is an attack on the freedom to protest, which has long been proven to be an effective avenue for change for marginalized communities. Previous protests that took place in Alberta which could be considered illegal under Bill 1 today include protests composed of LGBTQ+ people, Indigenous peoples, Black people, people with disabilities, and union workers — all vulnerable groups.

No matter the opinion, the motive of Bill 1 is clear: by controlling disruptive dissenters with an iron fist, companies would be able to continue extracting and transporting oil at a normal, if not accelerated, pace to the benefit of the province but to the detriment of protesters.

“No One is Above the Law”

It is undeniable that Albertans both, directly and indirectly, benefit from the province’s oil and gas industries: the provincial government owns 81 per cent of all oil and gas resources and collects royalties from ongoing extraction projects by other companies. The argument has therefore been made that the value from land sale bonuses, the taxes paid by companies and workers, and the revenue generated are all essential for the sustainability of Alberta’s social services. Indeed, a significant portion of the oil and gas sector’s revenue “helps pay for programs and services” like healthcare and educational upgrades enjoyed by many Albertans. 

Particularly under the current context of COVID-19, when many businesses are struggling and thousands of residents are experiencing unemployment, it seems natural that the government will favour and rely more heavily on the viability of the oil sector. Nonetheless, not all Albertans will benefit from this bill and its wider legislative goals: several groups argue that it prioritizes industry over the environment, humane working conditions, and Indigenous sovereignty. 

Local First Nations communities, environmental activists, and workers’ unions claim that the bill will contribute to the province becoming a “police state” by giving more legal support to the police, which may facilitate the suppression of marginalized and dissenting voices. Meanwhile, the Alberta Federation of Labour argues that the bill’s broad definition of “essential infrastructure” is problematic and vague: picketing on “trails, roads, alleys, squares, sidewalks, boulevards, ditches” as well as on highways, pipelines, railways, and alleys, which have traditionally been effective and direct spaces for protest, will become illegal.

Accordingly, these groups argue that without these most effective forms of protest, other suggested methods of “peace” will not be heard by a government that does not consider “non-peaceful” forms of protest. Many others fear that the relationship between law enforcement and civilians will become more estranged, especially now that police officers are legally empowered to make unhesitant arrests.  

The Alberta government outlines factors influencing revenue as “changes in local supply and demand” and “access to markets”. Given that the government’s dependency on the oil sector is so significant, either one of these factors must not fail in order for the government to continue to profit. However, protests have the potential to directly impact both, such as when protestors showed their support for Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chiefs by blocking off a part of the CN railway in West Edmonton. The reasoning behind support for the bill can be summed up in one phrase: “no one is above the law”, especially when it “interferes with commerce”, as asserted by Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen. The underlying sentiment behind this phrase is that all are subject to the same punishment for illegal activities, and Bill 1 will help enforce that equality.

Overall, the divide between supporters and this in opposition to the bill is clearer than ever. However, according to some, the government’s fast-tracked passing of the bill is not a coincidence: it is a well-timed example of “disaster capitalism”.

Disaster Capitalism

Disaster capitalism, or disaster profiteering, refers to how private industries take advantage of natural disasters, pandemics, wars, or market crashes in order to push “radical, pro-corporate measures” that reap economic benefits at the expense of a large swath of the population. But governments are not immune from this approach either. The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has used the lull of the COVID-19 pandemic to push an anti-terrorism bill, which critics argue will facilitate the arbitrary arrest of journalists, activists, and other “terrorists”. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China has enacted the Hong Kong Security Law which critics claim is a strategic and opportunistic move taken to avoid significant international or domestic backlash. As countries and individuals continue to struggle with the implications of the pandemic, many are recognizing that now is the optimal time to move forward with certain polarizing bills.

In the context of Bill 1, it can also be argued that disaster capitalism tactics were used. For instance, Alberta’s Energy Minister Sonya Savage, referring to the stalled construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, stated that “now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people”, adding “let’s get it built!”. Such a sentiment can be understood as a prime example of disaster capitalism, especially as such a controversial bill was made into law during a period when dissent cannot be expressed effectively or publicly. 

    Though Bill 1 adds to an existing federal criminal code, it arguably amplifies punishments handed to those protesting for a cleaner environment, ownership of unceded territories, and a better workplace. The criminalization of public dissent and the bill’s mostly quiet, fast-tracked passage are some of the reasons why this bill has been described as undemocratic and an example of disaster capitalism. Such concerns have elicited reactions from both Alberta’s biggest union, which is taking the government to court to revoke the bill, and First Nations Chiefs, who are calling for the bill’s termination due to its racially targeted nature.

For others, however, this bill is a firm-handed approach to “equality under the law,” and supports local Albertan industries, workers, and families who rely on undisrupted earnings. For many supporters, Bill 1 also presents a surefire way to ensure that international and domestic oil and gas companies continue to invest in and upscale the production of Albertan oil, which could be a lifeline to residents who are experiencing financial loss due to the pandemic.

The controversy stemming from Bill 1 has encouraged many Albertans and Canadians to speak up in protest of the law, organizing virtual protests and petitions to Premier Jason Kenney. However, it is unclear if the provincial government will prioritize the concerns of these dissenters over the potential of a well-funded future for the province, especially as COVID-19 threatens the province’s economic stability.

Edited by Eyitayo Kunle-Oladosu

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image by Shannon Patrick and obtained via Flickr under a CC BY 2.0 licence.