Nova Scotia introduces legislation prohibiting anti-vaccine protests near hospitals, pharmacies

Protests that block access to hospitals and other health-care facilities could soon be banned in Nova Scotia under newly proposed legislation.

The Progressive Conservative government tabled the Protecting Access to Health Services Act Thursday, which it said would also ban protests at the homes of patients who receive care where they live.

Premier Tim Houston said the legislation would establish a 50-metre "safe access bubble" around hospitals and other facilities such as doctors' offices, where protests would not be permitted.

"Health-care workers have disproportionately been through a lot with the pandemic," Houston told reporters. "This is all designed to make sure that our health-care professionals know that their government supports them in having a safe and healthy workplace."

The premier added that while people have a right to protest, they can't be allowed to disrupt access to health care. "There are places where (protesting) should be done and there are places where that should not be done," he said.

Nova Scotia joins Quebec, which adopted a law banning COVID-19-related protests outside schools and hospitals. Quebec's law, however, must be renewed every 30 days for it to remain in effect, and it expires when the government lifts the pandemic-related state of emergency. Alberta, meanwhile, recently announced it was adding hospitals, clinics and other health-care facilities to a list of essential infrastructure protected under an anti-blockade law.

The Nova Scotia legislation, which is not limited to the province's current pandemic-related state of emergency, comes in the wake of several protests against COVID-19 measures that were held outside health facilities across the country in September. Houston said his government's bill is largely in direct response to those and other health-related protests.

"Certainly that's front and centre in my mind … but who knows what the issue might be in the future," he said.

And although Houston said the 50-metre buffer would also apply to union picket lines outside hospitals, there doesn't appear to be a specific reference to labour unions in the language of the bill. The government said Thursday that peaceful protests would still be allowed outside health-care facilities as long as they are outside the buffer zone.

Liberal Leader Iain Rankin and NDP Leader Gary Burrill both expressed support for the idea behind the legislation, but they said they needed to evaluate the bill further before staking a position.

However, both said they wouldn't support a law that would also prohibit health workers from setting up union pickets during labour disputes.

"People have a right to collective bargaining and a right to protest, and I think that is foundational to our democracy," Rankin told reporters.

The Nova Scotia bill includes a fine for individuals of $5,000 and up to six months in jail for a first offence, and a fine of up to $10,000 and up to one year in jail for people who violate the order a second time. The legislation sets fines for corporations at $25,000 for a first offence and a fine between $5,000 and $100,000 for a second or subsequent offence.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2021.