VANCOUVER, B.C. — Every day, thousands of people head into downtown Vancouver on one of the city's busiest arteries and pass a Falun Gong protest in front of the Chinese consulate.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, year-round, at least one Falun Gong practitioner sits inside a tiny hut in silent protest to the Chinese government's outlawing of the spiritual movement.
The hut and surrounding protest signs appeared sometime in 2003 in front of the consulate - on city property - and have remained ever since.
For almost as long, the city has tried to have the group remove the structure or at least reach some kind of compromise.
"The city is not unwilling to discuss some compromise," city lawyer Tom Zworski told a B.C. Supreme Court justice Monday, suggesting there may be some signage or structure that would be acceptable
"But the respondents refused," he told the judge.
Now, the city is seeking court injunction to force the protesters to remove the structure.
Zworski that the structure contravenes a city bylaw that prohibits the erection of structures on city property.
"The city has an obligation to manage space on city streets," said Zworski. "It has to be managed for the benefit of the public as a whole."
Falun Gong is banned by the Chinese government.
Practitioners of the spiritual movement and city officials have had several meetings over the years, Zworski told Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein, but the hut and signs remain in place.
He conceded there are exceptions to the bylaw prohibiting structures, citing newspaper boxes, bus shelters and sidewalk cafes as examples.
And he also acknowledged that the bylaw in question does allow for some structures, but he said members of Falun Gong have never applied for an exemption.
In the first of several hearings scheduled to last all week, Zworski said the city wants an injunction forcing the protesters to disassemble the structure.
Outside court, Falun Gong spokeswoman Sue Zhang agreed they talked with the city "many times" and each time, she said, the city was "fine" with their plans.
"After 2004 the city talked to us and after 2003. We co-operated and reduced the sign and they were very happy and even thanked us," she said.
She said the city never informed them that they needed permission and never informed them that them of the bylaw.
She suggested that it was crucial to have the structure rather than simply have protests each day.
"The persecution is so brutal and especially the blockage of information from the Chinese regime, so many people don't know the brutality," Zhang said.
"With the structure on Granville it's busy so this size of structure and message is visible to people passing by."
A lawyer for the Falun Gong members is expected to make arguments later this week.
Zhang estimated the number of Falun Gong members in Vancouver at about 200.
Zworski said that if the Falun Gong prevail, it could have far-reaching consequences. He said a Falun Gong victory could mean the city would be unable to prohibit any group or person from building structures on city property anywhere in the city.