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A group of people holding signs asking for more restrictions and measures against covid outside while Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe speaks during the Saskatchewan Party 2021 Convention in Saskatoon, Sask., on Nov. 6.Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

The Saskatchewan government is proposing a law that would create buffer zones around hospitals against protesters, but the Opposition would like to see that protection extended to women trying to get an abortion in other settings.

The bill, written in response to COVID-19, would be in effect for two years.

“We know it’s people’s rights to protest, but it’s also people’s right to be able to access their health-care services in a timely manner,” Health Minister Paul Merriman said Wednesday.

“I want to make sure there’s a safe zone around our health-care workers so it’s one less thing they have to worry about.”

Earlier this year, several anti-vaccine protests related to COVID-19 were held at hospitals across Saskatchewan.

A sign criticizing vaccines was also posted last week at the entrance of a hospital in the southeast city of Yorkton, Sask. It said: “To all medical practitioners doctors and nurses ‘I was just carrying out orders’ is NOT a legal defence, you will be on trial for war crimes and held accountable.”

The province says the legislation would prevent demonstrations from happening on sidewalks within 50 metres of hospitals. No posters or signage would be allowed either.

The NDP Opposition has called for a safe access zone around hospitals since the spring. The justice minister said at the time that obstructing public facilities was already an offence under the Criminal Code.

Merriman said debate around COVID-19 vaccines has changed in a negative way since then.

“People are stressed. People are polarized on various issues, and social media certainly has a role in this.”

Merriman said he hopes the province can return to health-care workers feeling safe while they’re doing their jobs. He was embarrassed to hear about the sign posted at the Yorkton hospital, he added.

“I hope we can get back to the point where hospitals are wide open facilities ... and people aren’t so polarized on this issue. We’re each others neighbours. We’re each others friends and families. Our kids are playing on the same hockey teams,” he said.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili said the bill is a good thing, but he wants it expanded to protect other health-care facilities and, if passed into law, would like it to become permanent.

“Why two years? Maybe it won’t be pandemic-related protests, but it could be protests about accessing reproductive care. Let’s not have a sunset clause,” Meili said.

In Saskatchewan, surgical abortions are only available in Saskatoon and Regina hospitals, but abortions involving medications to end a pregnancy can be handled in clinics. Planned Parenthood also has offices in the province.

Last spring, the Saskatchewan Party government rejected a private member’s bill that would have created a buffer zone around any facilities offering abortion services.

Meili said the government is sending a message that it is less interested in protecting access to reproductive care.

“Frankly we should be protecting access to all kinds of care and that absolutely includes abortion care and reproductive care,” he said.

Merriman said the government is focused on a temporary general buffer zone, because those who are against abortions or who are pro-choice “haven’t been very aggressive towards each other.”

“They both understand they have their place to be able to protest. But we see people being very aggressive now (about COVID-19 vaccines),” Merriman said.

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