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Vancouver anti-fur protester complains to watchdog over police warning letter

VANCOUVER — An anti-fur activist has complained to British Columbia's police watchdog claiming Vancouver Police violated his rights by indefinitely banning him from visiting, or even walking past, a store where he regularly protests.

Taylor Freeman's complaint to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner claims a warning letter from police infringes on his right to protest and unfairly restricts his travel through downtown Vancouver.

Freeman said he has been protesting weekly outside Snowflake Furs for nearly two years. In November he received a letter advising that if he had any contact with a store employee he would be arrested for criminal harassment, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

He said the constable who issued the letter told him he cannot even walk by the store downtown, near where he lives. Unlike a peace bond, which needs to be renewed by a court, the letter has no time limit.

"It's scary, really, for any activist going up against organizations knowing that police can just throw out these letters ... threatening something as big as five years in jail for walking outside of a store on public property," said Freeman.

But Snowflake Furs CEO Rokie Bernstein — and another store owner who says he's had run-ins with Freeman — say the warning letter is long overdue. Bernstein said Freeman was aggressive, threatening and often hurled obscenities at customers and staff.

While the two sides tell very different stories, civil liberties advocates say the letter issued to Freeman appears to be overly broad, and raises questions about the ability of police to balance protesters' rights with those of businesses.

Micheal Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said her organization is not opposed in principle to police warning letters.

"We are not convinced that this particular warning letter was an appropriate one, however — for the reasons, simply put, that it is incredibly vague, incredibly sweeping, and imposes a restraint on a constitutional right."

Vonn said a more appropriate way of addressing these issues would a peace bond, which requires police to present evidence to a judge.

The one-page warning letter says a complaint that Freeman is harassing a store employee is under investigation. It says the employee fears for her safety and finds his unwanted contact at her workplace "annoying and frightening."

Freeman said he never enters the store or speaks with staff.

Doug King, a lawyer for the advocacy group Pivot Legal Society, said the letter is a standard one issued in criminal harassment cases, but those are usually related to domestic violence. In the context of a protest, the letter appears too open-ended, he said.

"(The police) do need to be careful. If you're telling somebody that they don't have a right to protest, then that person has a very valid argument that their charter rights are being infringed on."

Vancouver Const. Brian Montague said police do not keep track of the number of warning letters they issue, but similar letters were given to two or three protesters of Pidgin Restaurant in the Downtown Eastside in 2013, after their actions "escalated and became criminal."

"It provides documentation that someone has been clearly informed by police that their conduct is not lawful and takes away any confusion regarding (whether) their actions could result in arrest," he said.

The OPCC complaint, signed by lawyer Anna Pippus of Animal Justice on Freeman's behalf, said although activists regularly protest Snowflake Furs, it appears only Freeman has been ordered to stop.

"Mr. Freeman is a visible minority — the only Snowflake Furs protester with dark skin," the complaint states. "There are many witnesses who can confirm that Mr. Freeman has been no more or less 'intimidating' or 'aggressive' than any of the other protesters."

Montague said warning letters are issued regardless of "age, sex, race, beliefs or religion."

The OPCC declined to comment for confidentiality reasons.

Bernstein, the CEO of Snowflake Furs, said she has video of Freeman harassing staff and customers, and that once he followed an employee to a nearby coffee shop, which Freeman denied.

"The police, out of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of protesters, would not have bothered had there not been something significant to the case that this gentleman is not talking about," she said.

Freeman also protests outside Brooklyn Clothing in downtown Vancouver because it sells Canada Goose jackets with coyote fur trim. Owner Jason Overbo said the protests had wreaked havoc on the neighbourhood and Freeman was the most aggressive.

Overbo said if Freeman were to be arrested, it would be like "cutting the head off the snake."

Freeman vehemently denied any allegations that he was verbally or physically threatening.

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

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