Witnesses win door-to-door right

Court throws out Blainville ban. 'A city council should not decide whom the residents may receive at their homes'

Montreal Gazette/August 28, 2003
By Harvey Shepherd

The town of Blainville cannot use its 1996 canvassing bylaw to regulate door-to-door activities of Jehovah's Witnesses, the Quebec Court of Appeal has ruled.

The decision, made public yesterday, had lawyers for both sides declaring victory.

"The municipal council is not in the business of telling people whom they should be talking to," Glen How, a veteran of more than half a century of legal battles for the Witnesses, paraphrased the decision.

How, 84, of Georgetown, Ont., has pleaded for Witnesses in court cases in several countries.

One landmark case in the 1950s dealt with handing out pamphlets on Quebec City streets. He said the issues in Blainville were much the same.

But Pierre Paquin, who represented the growing suburban municipality in the lower Laurentians, said the decision affirms the right of municipalities to regulate canvassing. "We've lost, but it's a victory," he said.

Paquin said the ruling opens the way for the town, should it wish, to adopt a better drafted bylaw that respects the right of groups like the Witnesses.

The 1996 bylaw barred door-to-door canvassing after 7:30 p.m. and on weekends, and required a $100 permit to canvass at other times, for no more than two months in a year. It applied to soliciting by lawn-care services and the like, as well as religious visits.

Witnesses refused to apply for a permit. Eventually, Blainville police issued summonses to 14 members of the religion.

An April 2001 decision by Quebec Superior Court Justice André Crépeau quashed the bylaw as it affects Witnesses. However, Crépeau also refused the Witnesses' request that Mayor Pierre Gingras be required to pay moral damages to the 14.

The appeal court ruling upholds both Superior Court decisions.

"In a free and democratic society, " Justice Pierre J. Dalphond wrote, "a city council should not play Big Brother in trying to decide whom the residents may receive at their homes during the evening or the weekend."

Dalphond's reasoning goes further than Crépeau's in affirming the power of municipalities to regulate canvassing.

However, he wrote, such regulation must be consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Blainville bylaw "severely restricts the freedom of religion of Jehovah's Witnesses and the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression of the citizens of Blainville," he wrote.

So it was up to Blainville to show this restriction was reasonable and consistent with democratic values.

The town failed to do so, Dalphond wrote.

Evidence showed that residents "were not complaining of abusive solicitation by Jehovah's Witnesses but by numerous pedlars and itinerant merchants."

Moreover, "the measures enacted were negligently drafted and adopted in a hurry without prior consultation, and are irrational and disproportionate in their effects."

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