Saskatchewan court allows teepee protest camp to stay on legislature lawn

REGINA — A Saskatchewan judge has ruled a Metis man can stay on the lawn of the provincial legislature to finish his hunger strike against high suicide rates.

The government took Tristen Durocher to court after the 24-year-old started camping in a teepee in Regina's Wascana Park.

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He arrived there at the end of July after walking more than 600 kilometres from northern Saskatchewan to raise awareness about suicides in the region.

Lawyers for the province argued Durocher is violating park bylaws that prohibit overnight camping and his presence poses a safety risk.

Durocher's lawyer told a court last week that he is on a ceremonial fast that will end Sunday and it's protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because he's an Indigenous man.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Graeme Mitchell dismissed the government's application for a court order to remove Durocher, saying the bylaws and trespassing notice against him are unconstitutional.

In his written decision released Friday, Mitchell said the park bylaws don't provide exemptions to allow for "constitutionally protected political and spiritual expression of the kind at issue in this case."

He declared the rules to "be of no force and effect" and gave the Provincial Capital Commission and Wascana Centre (park) Authority, which control the space, six months to craft new bylaws.

He pointed to how the park's website acknowledges it is located on Treaty 4 territory and home to different Indigenous nations, including the Metis. Mitchell said he accepts the idea that traditional lands are important to Indigenous people when practising their spirituality.

He also said that Durocher's right to freedom of expression was violated and that a public square is where someone usually goes to "express public dissent."

"The West Lawn of the Saskatchewan Legislative grounds, in my view, plainly qualifies as a public square. Indeed, I can think of no space more worthy of such a characterization," his decision reads.

Two years ago, a different judge ruled that police in Regina could remove an Indigenous protest camp out of the park after the provincial government came forward with a similar request.

Mitchell said that case was different because there was a group of teepees instead of only one and the current situation involves a ceremonial fast.

He also acknowledged the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls on reconciliation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

"In my respectful view, Tristen's ceremonial fast represents an admittedly small and personal attempt to encourage all of us to move a little further along in our national journey."

Ministry of Justice spokeswoman Marieka Andrew said the provincial government is reviewing the ruling.

"Justice officials will be reviewing the judgment and any additional reasons in the coming days before determining next steps and whether an appeal is appropriate," she said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2020

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