REGINA — The fate of a Metis man's hunger strike to highlight suicide rates will be decided by a Saskatchewan judge after hearing arguments from the government and protesters about what's at stake.
Tristen Durocher, a 24-year-old Metis man, erected a teepee on a lawn in front of Saskatchewan's legislature after walking more than 600 kilometres from the province's north to bring attention to the region's high suicide rates.
The provincial government said when he arrived at the end of July, Durocher failed to apply for a permit despite officials telling him more than once one was required.
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice is seeking a court order to remove the teepee from the park.
Durocher's lawyer argued bylaws prohibit overnight camping, so he didn't bother with permission.
Eleanore Sunchild says her client is doing a ceremonial fast to honour the high number of Indigenous people who have killed themselves in his northern Saskatchewan home.
It also highlights how Durocher feels the provincial government isn't doing enough to prevent their deaths, she said.
“The meaning is both political and spiritual," Sunchild told the court.
She argued his actions are protected under Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She said he has nine days left to go before he finishes his 44 days fasting ceremony on Sept.13 and should be allowed to stay.
Justice Graeme Mitchell acknowledged the tight turnaround Friday before reserving his decision, which he said he'd try to have out within a week.
Sunchild told court Durocher's fast also includes the act of staying in his teepee, praying, smudging and the non-stop burning of a sacred fire.
“He can’t have a fast without a teepee."
Michael Morris, legal counsel for the Saskatchewan government, said Friday the case isn't about whether the protesters have an honourable cause.
"Fundamentally, it is about whether the protesters must comply with the laws which govern the conduct of everyone in Wascana Centre (park)," he said.
Morris says the Provincial Capital Commission, which operates the park, is concerned the teepee camp poses safety risks.
The park has limited washroom facilities and was never intended for camping, he said. Allowing protesters to sleep overnight can also attract unwanted attention.
“The very public flouting of bylaws can and does serve to ignite hostility," said Morris, who added that in 2018 a man was criminally charged after setting off fireworks at another teepee protest camp at the legislature.
In that case, a judge ordered the camp be removed.
Morris said Durocher had stated to commission officials his protest wouldn't be held back by bylaw bureaucracy and "made some implied threats towards the legislative building.”
“Saying, ‘I don’t want any (vandalism) to happen to this building, but you know, COVID has everybody anxious and Black Lives Matter has everybody charged and you really think carefully of your next moves because this could turn into a disaster,'" read Morris.
Sunchild said her client felt intimidated by commission officers.
She argued the rules prohibiting overnight camping infringes on Durocher's freedom to use a teepee and the government could make exceptions.
Jeff Crawford, another government lawyer, said because Durocher never applied for a permit, they will never know if one would have been granted.
Crawford also called into question how sleeping counts as a freedom of expression.
Speaking outside court, Durocher said whether the government accepts it or not, that section of the lawn has become a ceremonial place for Indigenous peoples to air their grievances.
"What sense would it make for us to try to raise public awareness camped out somewhere off grid in the bush where nobody could see us?"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2020
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press