Patterns of protest: property, social movements, and the law in British Columbia




Isitt, Benjamin

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Embracing a spatial and historical lens and the insights of critical legal theory, this dissertation maps the patterns of protest and the law in modern British Columbia―the social relations of adjudication—the changing ways in which conflict between private property rights and customary rights invoked by social movement actors has been contested and adjudicated in public spaces and legal arenas. From labour strikes in the Vancouver Island coal mines a century ago, to more recent protests by First Nations, environmentalists, pro- and anti-abortion activists, and urban “poor peoples’” movements, social movement actors have asserted customary rights to property through the control or appropriation of space. Owners and managers of property have responded by enlisting an array of legal remedies and an army of legal actors—lawyers, judges, police, parliaments, and soldiers—to restore control over space and assert private property rights. For most of the past century, conventional private property claims trumped the customary claims of social movements in the legal arena, provoking crises of legal legitimacy where social movement actors questioned the impartiality of judges and the fairness of adjudicative procedures. Remedies and legal technologies asserted by company lawyers, awarded by judges, and enforced by police and soldiers were often severe―from Criminal Code proscriptions against riotous assembly and deployment of military force, to the equitable remedy of the injunction and lengthy prison sentences following criminal contempt proceedings. But this pattern shows signs of change in recent years, driven by three major trends in British Columbia and Canadian law: (1) the effective assertion of indigenous customary rights; (2) growing recognition of the importance of human rights in democratic societies, particularly in the context of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and (3) changes in the composition of the legal profession and judiciary. This changing legal landscape has created a new and evolving legal space, where property claims are increasingly treated as contingent rather than absolute and where the rights of one party are increasingly balanced by customary rights, interests, and aspirations of others. Consequently, we are seeing a trend toward the dilution of legal remedies traditionally available to the powerful, creating space for the assertion of non-conventional property claims and the emergence of new patterns of power relations.



law and society, social movements, protest, legal history, legal geography, law of employment and labour, British Columbia, Canada