A Saskatchewan court has rebuked the City of Prince Albert with $6,000 in court costs over its refusal to fly a pro-life flag on its courtesy flagpole.

For decades, Prince Albert regularly allowed various groups and causes to fly their flags, including LGBT Pride, literacy, Falun Dafa, transgenderism, and Saskatchewan Ukrainians.

The local pro-life group had been one of the many organizations to participate, raising its flag during “Celebrate Life Week” for over 20 years.  But in early 2017, in response to two complaints, Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne declared that only a “national flag” or “nationally recognized flag” could be raised.  Mayor Dionne refused to respond to queries asking how he reconciled his declaration with the city’s written policy, which said nothing about “national” or “nationally recognized” flags. 

The city’s Policy stated that groups could use the courtesy flagpole “to help increase public awareness of their programs and activities,” with the purpose of establishing “a respectful and consistent process for the raising of flags.”

The Prince Albert Right to Life Association sued the city in the fall of 2017.  Fearful of this strong and well-founded court action, the city then passed a motion to deny access to its courtesy flagpole to all groups equally.

The city argued that its desperate measure to eliminate the courtesy flagpole rendered the court action moot because now there was no longer a dispute between the two parties.

In her June 6, 2019 decision, Justice Gwendolyn Goebel accepted that the city’s move rendered the legal dispute moot.However, she rebuked the City for its “mishandling of the application” tendered by the pro-life group. 

The Court found that the City did not follow its own Policy, and violated its legal duty of procedural fairness to the applicants, who had a right to expect that the City would adhere to the process outlined in its Policy.  The City’s decision “was neither the product of a transparent process nor was it supported by intelligible reasons.”  This court ruling is a victory against capricious political decision-making, and a victory for the Rule of Law.

This Court ruling serves as a warning to Ottawa, Saskatoon and other municipalities that choose to play politics with flagpoles.  It also serves as a warning to Edmonton, which has played politics with a lighting display used by numerous community groups, but which a pro-life group was barred from using. 

Yorkton, Saskatchewan had also decided to deny a pro-life proclamation, while granting proclamations for numerous other groups including Pride and Falun Dafa.  However, upon receiving a legal warning letter, Yorkton wisely reversed course and granted the pro-life group equal access.

The Supreme Court of Canada has stated repeatedly that free expression is the lifeblood of democracy, and the cornerstone of Canada’s free society.  The right of all citizens to express opinions is the indispensable ingredient that allows for the free exchange of ideas, robust debate, and the sincere pursuit of truth.  When government censors any one opinion, it strikes at the heart of truth-seeking, human dignity, and at the ability to debate law, justice and good public policy.

Every opinion, on every topic, is bound to be offensive to at least one individual, and often more than one.  If we each have a legal right not to be offended, then nobody has freedom of expression.  Sadly, many Canadians say: “I’m in favour of free expression, as long as it’s not offensive.”  That’s like believing in dry water.  When it comes to the government’s duty to uphold freedom of expression, it matters not which opinion is right.  The point is that governments cannot use censorship to decide society’s moral and political debates.

When a city allows various community groups and causes to use a courtesy flagpole, the Charter requires that city to fly (for example) both a pro-choice flag and a pro-life flag, or to fly no flags at all.  Political censorship of one view, but not of others, violates the Charter by violating both freedom of expression as well as the government’s legal duty of neutrality.

Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF.ca), which represented the Prince Albert Right to Life Association in its court action against the City of Prince Albert.