The Saskatchewan government has introduced legislation to create "safe access zones" around hospitals to protect health-care workers and patients from COVID protesters.
The legislation will create a 50-metre buffer zone restricting protests around hospitals. It was prompted by a string of protests against COVID-19 measures outside hospitals in Saskatchewan.
"Patients and families deserve to be able to access health services safely and without facing interference or intimidation," health minister Paul Merriman wrote in a statement Wednesday.
Merriman told reporters on Wednesday morning that he was "embarrassed" by protests outside hospitals in Regina and Saskatoon in September.
"I felt extremely bad for the health-care workers, because what they were telling me is this was a gut shot to them and for no reason," he said.
"You're entitled to your opinion. And I understand that and I respect that. But that doesn't mean that you get to go and attack other people."
Protests against vaccine mandates and COVID-19 measures took place across Canada in mid-September and were condemned by premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The protests were organized by Canadian Frontline Nurses, a group founded by two Ontario nurses who have promoted conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and attended rallies in the U.S. for those who think the pandemic is a "fraud."
On Wednesday, the Saskatchewan government introduced amendments to the 1994 Public Health Act and said the safe access zone provision in the legislation will expire two years after the legislation comes into force.
Lawful labour picketing will still be allowed within the buffer zone, according to the province.
"We want to protect the people that are coming into our hospital system, not just the employees, the patients, but also any family members that are coming to visit. We've seen some disturbing protests outside of our health care, and it's very upsetting for the health care workers," Merriman said.
Merriman said people have a right to protest, but should not do so at the expense of people trying to work, receive care or visit a loved one.
He said the 50-metre buffer zone will also prohibit signs seen to be in contravention of the law. Merriman said this would include the signs that were recently posted on doors and windows at Yorkton Regional Hospital.
The signs had an anti-vaccine message and targeted health care workers.
"You will be on trial for war crimes [and] held accountable!" said one of the signs addressed to medical practitioners and plastered across doors and windows at the Yorkton Regional Health Centre.
In September, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili called for a law to protect the area around hospitals.
Meili said he supported the plan to create a buffer zone, but that he needs to examine the legislation before placing his full support behind it.
With the Opposition's support the bill could become law this year. Without, it may have to wait until 2022.
Meili said the bill should not be limited to hospitals and should include all health-care facilities.
He also said he did not agree with the 24-month sunset clause.
"Let's make this a permanent thing and let's look at all of the facilities. There are places like Planned Parenthood that have offices. Why not include protections for anywhere that people are accessing needed medical care? Why would we allow protests at any such facility?"
In May, the NDP introduced a private bill to create a "bubble" to prevent protests around clinics which provide abortions. It did not receive government support.
Meili also said he wants to take time to look at the bill because it includes added sections on vaccinations.