EDMONTON - Alberta has introduced legislation to keep protesters at least 50 metres away from abortion clinics, and to make it illegal for demonstrators to video, record audio or take pictures of people entering or leaving the building.
The province would also, if asked, designate similar no-go zones around homes and offices of doctors and other staff who provide abortions.
"All Albertans should feel safe when accessing their health-care services. That includes abortion services, which have been legal in this country for almost 50 years," Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said after tabling the legislation Thursday.
"This new act will ensure women in Alberta can exercise this choice without fear of interference, bullying, threats or intimidation."
Under the proposed legislation, it would also be illegal for anyone to harass a doctor by phone, mail or online to convince them to not provide abortion services.
Anyone breaking the law faces fines up to $10,000 or a year in jail. Corporations that violate the rules can be fined up to $100,000.
If the bill passes, Alberta will join British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador in creating so-called bubble zones around clinics.
Alberta has two clinics — one in Edmonton and one in Calgary — that perform 75 per cent of the abortions in the province. The latest government numbers say 14,268 procedures were performed in 2016.
Both clinics have court injunctions in place to keep protesters across the street.
Marie-Claire Bissonnette, with the Campaign Life Coalition, said the legislation isn't necessary because of those injunctions.
"It's creating a law specifically targeted to people who don't agree with abortion," said Bissonnette.
"If these people are harassing women, there are already laws in place to stop that and they should be tried according to those laws. But it seems it's being brought forward with a lack of evidence that this is actually happening."
Celia Posyniak of Calgary's Kensington Clinic and Kim Cholewa of the Edmonton clinic Women's Health Options said the court injunctions have become effectively meaningless. They said protesters are ignoring the buffer zone as they harass, video, and abuse staff and patients entering the clinic.
Hoffman has said the number of protesters outside the Kensington clinic has doubled in the last year and there are now demonstrators outside the Women's Health Options Centre in Edmonton four or five times a week.
Posyniak called the bill "a really good start." She said she was pleased with the penalties, as well as the proposed ban on phone and email harassment.
She also liked the proposed ban on videos.
"People worry about that a lot. We see a lot of protesters out here holding cameras. I'm not sure what they do with those photographs and that's worrisome."
But Stephanie Fennelly, with the anti-abortion Wilberforce Project, said there is no harassment or intimidation outside of abortion clinics and "Minister Hoffman suggesting otherwise is simply false.
"We don't ban animal rights demonstrators from gathering on public property outside of the Stampede, so why should we ban pro-lifers from gathering on public property outside of a clinic?"
Cholewa said the harassment is real.
"We hear it even within our own walls — people across the street yelling at our patients. We hear it when we're doing our work inside a concrete building," said Cholewa.
"We see the papers that the patients have brought in that were forced into their hand as they have to walk through the mud puddle to get into our building because (protesters) are blocking the access."
Cholewa said clinics in other jurisdictions have reported the bubble-zone laws make a difference.
"It is a great day for women who need this," she said. "They have been struggling for a very long time."