Organizers say Surrey rally for farmers in India unfairly shutdown by RCMP over inaccurate information

·3 min read
Ben Nelms/CBC

Organizers of a planned rally in support of farmers in India say the event was unfairly shut down before it could begin in Surrey on Saturday.

A statement from Our Avaaz, a group of volunteers affiliated with the event, which was set to take place in Cloverdale, said the planned protest complied with all COVID-19 guidelines and should have been allowed to go forward.

Later in the week, the group said that Surrey RCMP claims the event would feature food trucks, and that 10,000 people would be in attendance, were inaccurate.

Since late November, farmers in India have been protesting in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, saying that new laws being implemented by the Indian government will deregulate crop prices and devastate their earnings.

Since then, car rallies have been organized in cities like Vancouver, Calgary and Charlottetown to show solidarity.

Event volunteer Pindie Dhaliwal wrote in the statement that RCMP "unfairly targeted and unnecessarily undermined a protest planned in compliance with public health orders."

"The RCMP squandered an opportunity to have meaningful dialogue and ensure the rights of the public to peacefully protest were protected," she wrote in part.

Meghan McDermott, a lawyer with the BC Civil Liberties Association, wrote in the statement that "shutting down of this protest organized by a racialized community is an affront to the constitutional right to protest."

"This was an event that took safety measures and provincial health orders seriously but was arbitrarily and unjustly shut down by the Surrey RCMP even before any opportunity for alleging non-compliance arose," McDermott said.

RCMP cite concerns around gathering

Elenore Sturko, a spokesperson for Surrey RCMP, said police moved to shut down the protest upon hearing that it would feature a DJ, stage, and food vendors, which raised concerns about people leaving their vehicles and congregating.

But Our Avaaz said in a statement on Wednesday that no food truck vendors were ever contacted to take part in the rally, and that a volunteer DJ was brought on to facilitate sound for the live radio transmission of the event.

"At the end of the day, Surrey RCMP owes the community an explanation and an apology," said Gulab Kaur, a member of the volunteer organization in charge of the event.

Sturko said police want to ensure a "fine balance" between the right to protest and ensuring the community remains safe.

"We don't want people to be afraid that we're taking efforts to try to extinguish their voices, that is not our intention," she said.

"It was just a risk that was too great at this time so we had to unfortunately, working with the city, keep that gathering from taking place."

Sturko said RCMP encouraged organizers of future rallies to reach out to RCMP and the city to ensure events can go forward safely.

"If you are planning something, we would ask that you work with us," she said.

"It doesn't mean that we're getting rid of the right to protest in Surrey."