Fighting civil forfeiture

More than 100 Yukoners protested in front of the legislature yesterday against Bill 82, the territory's proposed Civil Forfeiture Act. The crowd was largely young and largely apolitical.

More than 100 Yukoners protested in front of the legislature yesterday against Bill 82, the territory’s proposed Civil Forfeiture Act.

The crowd was largely young and largely apolitical. There were skateboarders and dog-walkers and moms pushing baby strollers. It was sunny enough for many to wear sunglasses, and a few wore shorts.

The gathering had a decidedly anti-authoritarian flavour. The podium that had been hauled into place bore the Gonzo Fist of Hunter S. Thompson.

Cars honked as protesters waved placards that bore slogans such as “Screw Bill 82” and “Guilty until proven innocent? WTF?” while speakers blared songs like Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up and Trooper’s Raise a Little Hell.

Speeches were heavy on rhetoric. Organizer Micah Hoeschele called the bill “insidious and socially dangerous.”

“Effectively, it circumvents your Charter of Rights,” he warned.

This ragtag group, Yukoners for Civil Rights, has gathered more than 2,000 signatures over the past week. Their Facebook presence, which helped mobilize the many young people in the crowd, yesterday had 485 supporters.

Opposition MLAs gladhanded the crowd and took turns speaking.

The Liberals’ Darius Elias acknowledged his party supported the bill when it received second reading in December, “but at no point did we agree to circumventing the consultation process,” he said.

The Liberals had also called on the territory for provisions to “protect the innocent,” he said. “That didn’t happen.”

If the draft law is not amended to reflect such concerns, Elias vowed to “fight to see that Bill 82 doesn’t see the light of day.”

The NDP’s Steve Cardiff, who later tabled the group’s petition in the legislature, blasted the government for its plans to pass the draft law as it stands.

“It’s about taking away people’s rights. It’s about taking your property. It’s about being guilty until being proven innocent.”

Civil forfeiture laws exist in eight Canadian jurisdictions. They allow police to seize property – including cash, vehicles and homes – from citizens without proof of criminal wrongdoing, by way of the civil courts.

Boosters say the law will help fight organized crime. Critics worry it could be easily abused by authorities.

Last week, the Yukon Party government agreed to shelve the draft law until public consultations were held. Such an about-face is remarkable for the government, Cardiff said. He congratulated the crowd for helping to pressure the change.

“Democracy isn’t something that happens every four or five years in the territory,” he said. “Democracy is something that happens every day.”

Megan Vis-Dunbar, a Vancouver lawyer and member of the BC Civil Liberties Association, warned that once such a law is in place, it’s difficult to remove.

Last year, her organization lost a Supreme Court of Canada challenge of civil forfeiture laws.

Former Whitehorse Centre MLA Mike McLarnon also urged Yukoners to “kill the bill” and during consultations to say “No, period.”

After the rally, many in attendance crowded into the legislature gallery, leaving standing room only. Speaker Ted Staffen twice shushed the crowded for clapping and thumping feet.

The NDP’s Todd Hardy played to the crowd, warming up with a reading of the trade unionist poem Bread and Roses, followed by later references to Mahatma Gandhi’s fight against British imperialism and a recitation about Nazi Germany.

Premier Dennis Fentie, meanwhile, took a swat at the Liberals for what he saw as their self-righteous posturing against Bill 82.

“They change position like a windsock,” Fentie said. “It wasn’t that long ago they were all for this matter.”

Contact John Thompson at