The Justice Centre filed a court application on behalf of the Alberta March for Life Association (AMLA) and Jerry Pasternak against the City of Edmonton over its decision to cancel a scheduled lighting of the High Level Bridge in colours chosen by AMLA.
Operated by the City of Edmonton, the High Level Bridge is outfitted with 60,000 programmable lights, lit every day in the morning and evening. Through the “Light the Bridge” program, the City permits and invites members of the public and community groups to request the Bridge be lit in specific colours to reflect their event or cause.
On March 6, 2019, Jerry Pasternak, Vice Chair of AMLA submitted an application to the City for the High Level Bridge to be lit up on May 9, 2019 in the colours of pink, blue, and white to recognize the March for Life. For over 10 years, thousands of supporters have participated in the annual peaceful outdoor march, organized by AMLA to recognize the dignity of the elderly and disabled people, as well as the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.
AMLA’s application was approved by the City on March 7, 2019. However, on April 5, the City reneged and cancelled the scheduled lighting of the Bridge. In an email, City staff stated: “Upon further review of your application, it came to our attention that lighting the bridge for this event cannot be approved due to the polarizing nature of the subject matter.”
In response, Jerry Pasternak emailed City staff, stating: “I am deeply disappointed in your decision. Can you please provide evidence of this polarization?”
The City of Edmonton did not respond.
A nearly identical incident occurred May 7, 2017, when, on the day the Bridge was approved to be lit in the pink, blue and white colours associated with the March for Life, the City cancelled the lighting. No rationale or justification was provided by the City for the cancellation.
The Bridge is regularly lit in association with various religious and political causes, awareness days, religious celebrations, political holidays and commemorations that promote the ideologies, political causes and religious beliefs of their proponents. For example, within the last three years, the Bridge has repeatedly been lit to promote sexual and gender diversity, Pride, various Islamic holidays and commemorations, Jewish religious holidays, Buddhist religious holidays, days recognizing political events in foreign countries such as Chilean Independence Day and the anniversary of the founding of Azerbaijan, and awareness days such as National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, and Wrongful Conviction Day. Ironically recognizing beliefs and causes that are similar to the Alberta March for Life Association, the Bridge has recently been lit in association with International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day, and various disability awareness campaigns.
As outlined in the Justice Centre’s court application, the City is constitutionally prohibited from discriminating against the content of expression in spaces it has opened up to the public for expressive purposes. In twice deciding to cancel a scheduled lighting of the Bridge, exclusively because of the pro-life expression involved, the City has twice failed to explain how such expression is “polarizing”, or whether it is more “polarizing” than other causes, or how the City determines which organizations or issues are sufficiently “polarizing” to warrant being denied the right to use a public space that is available to a long list of other causes.
The Justice Centre asked the court to declare that the City violated the freedom of expression and overturn the City’s decision to cancel the scheduled lighting of the Bridge in colours chosen by AMLA. The Justice Centre also sought to have the court strike down the current policy the City uses to approve or deny requests to light the Bridge.
On October 7, 2021, the Court dismissed the application, holding that the bridge lighting was used solely by the City to communicate its public support for approved events, causes and people, and consequently was not a platform for public expression. The applicants declined to appeal the decision.