A fight is brewing between Ottawa city hall and the Chinese Embassy.
On the surface, it's about the tape-measure particulars of a city bylaw concerning signs. But what's really at stake is freedom of speech, according to Councillor Alex Munter. And he says city hall will not be pushed around. Since May of last year, the Chinese Embassy on St. Patrick Street has been irritated by a daily protest held by Falun Gong practitioners, there to voice objection to the government crackdown in China against all who publicly support the spiritual practice.
For many hours each day, sometimes from dusk until dawn, the protesters hang banners with slogans like "Choose compassion and tolerance," from a fence across the street from the embassy.
Because of the long-term nature of their protest, the Falun Gong leaders faithfully fill out applications each month to obtain their permit to conduct the protest. Until November, they had no problem getting their permits.
Then, a complaint was made.
Is it not the case, an inquiring member of the public asked, that under the precise rules of the bylaw governing protests all signs must be hand-held?
And yes, that is the case.
So who made the complaint? It was not De La Salle High School, the owners of the fence on which the banners hang. The school does not object to the signs. The protesters say there is only one possible source of the complaint.
Wei Cai, the press attaché for the Chinese Embassy, said he did not know himself who made the complaint and was not aware of it originating with the embassy.
But he did say that the protesters are "harassing" the embassy and its visitors.
"Under the Vienna Convention, we should have a peaceful working environment," he said.
So far, the city's bylaw enforcement staffs have not taken away the protesters' signs, pending the outcome of a city transportation committee meeting tomorrow.
There, Mr. Munter will try to persuade his fellow politicians that the city must not allow foreign countries to dictate how the city balances order with freedom.
"The Chinese Embassy or supporters of the Chinese government don't want the signs up because it makes them uncomfortable," he said. "That's too bad. That's the point of the signs.
"We are an embassy town," he added. "We are host to a number of unsavoury or oppressive regimes. It would be a dangerous precedent to allow them to use our bylaws to suppress freedom."
Mr. Munter plans to ask his colleagues to grant special permission to the protesters to continue hanging their signs on the fence.
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