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Supreme Court rules Translink subject to Canada's Charter

VANCOUVER - A decision announced today by the Supreme Court of Canada could change the face of policy in government-contracted entities.

The decision ended a five year-long battle between BC Transit and the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority (GVTA), otherwise known as Translink, and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) British Columbia Component.

It stated that Translink was in breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it did not allow the CFS to post their advertising on the sides of Translink busses. Translink maintained an advertising policy that allowed for “commercial advertising” but not “political advertising” on the government controlled transit vehicles.

The case began in 2004, when the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the CFS claimed the policy was a breach of their right to freedom of speech.

The ads in question encouraged students and young people to vote in the 2005 election. The CFS wanted to advertise on the busses because of the high concentration of young people who rely on public transit, cccording to BC CFS Chairperson Shamus Reid.

A law suit followed shortly after in the BC Supreme Court. It was later deferred to the BC Court of Appeal, and 16 months ago, to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The ruling handed out today hits two monumental issues, said Grace Pastine, Litigation Director for the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), one of the intervenors in the case.

The first, she said, is the issue of who counts as government and therefore, who is subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, since the Charter only applies to government entities.

The decision ruled that Translink is indeed a government entity and that “a government should not be able to shirk its Charter obligations by simply conferring its powers on another entity.”

“This [decision] says the government can’t subcontract out it’s obligations and expect those entities doing its work aren’t subject to the Charter,” said Pastine. “This could have far reaching consequences.”

The second issue is the protection of freedom of speech on government property. The decision effectively stated that once the government or a government entity creates a platform for speech-- in this case the side of a bus-- they can not then discriminate against certain types of speech on the basis of content, commercial or political.

“The supreme court has made it clear once again that free speech on government property will be protected,” said Pastine.

Shamus Reid said the CFS has no plans to immediately exercise their newly won right.

“We’re planning on doing the same thing as always. Any campaign we run, we’re going to look at the options available to us. But we have no immediate plans to just start plastering our ads all over the bus.”

Christine McLaren reports for The Tyee

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