Sunday, March 20, 2011

Unfinished: Waiting for Justice from Toronto's G20 Police Riot

Op-Ed: The Unfinished G20 Story
March 9th, 2011
by: Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
James Clancy, National Director, National Union of Public and General Employees


There are events in Canadian history that have become symbols of the fragility of our democratic rights: the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War or the imposition of the War Measures Act, to name a few. In our view, the policing at the G20 Summit in Toronto last summer will be remembered as one of them.

We know that over 1105 people were arrested, that less than 100 charges are proceeding, that peaceful protests were violently dispersed, that thousands of people were searched, that some people were assaulted, detained for extended periods of time, denied their right to a lawyer or insulted . However, we still do not know why such conduct was allowed to take place and why the right to protest peacefully was not fully protected.

Vandalism is condemnable but it does not give the right to the police to unleash brutal treatment on other peaceful protesters. The right to peacefully protest is an integral part of a democratic order and is as important as the right to vote. The government and security responses to the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly is a test of whether a government is a democracy or an autocracy, as events around the world demonstrate. Violent disruptions of peaceful protests are unacceptable no matter where they occur.

In November 2010, the National Union of Public and General Employees and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association held public hearings on the policing of the G20 Summit. The purpose of these hearings was not to replace the public inquiry which we absolutely need, but simply provide a space for people to tell their story and to raise awareness about what happened at the G20. Many people came to describe what they had seen, what they experienced or make suggestions for improvements to public order policing. Many people described how their rights to peaceful assembly were breached, how they witnessed police abuse and how they were left wondering why this happened. There is no doubt that the scale of civil rights violations goes beyond the actions of a few misbehaving police officers: hundreds of police officers removed their badges, many told protesters that martial law had been declared, that protesters no longer had any rights and that they could be held at the detention centre for as long as necessary. The failure to train police officers properly, to instruct them on the need to respect and protect the right to peaceful assembly, the misleading information about the Public Works Protection Act – all this need to be investigated properly.

A public inquiry is needed. Although many shiver at the thought of spending more money on an enterprise that has already cost more than one billion dollars for a three day event, not doing it will be more costly. The G20 security effort was multifaceted: it involved police officers and security efforts from many police forces, from different provinces and from both the federal and provincial police. This renders the accountability mechanisms that we have which are jurisdictionally bound ill-suited for the exercise. Although many processes are now under way, their scope is limited by the mandate that they have. No one can look fully at the interplay between the RCMP and the provincial and municipal forces, no one has the capacity to assess whether there were communications, training or leadership failures that led to the large-scale violations. A federal-provincial public inquiry is needed so that the full story is told. Canadians deserve to know what went wrong and whether it could have been avoided. If we do not get to the bottom of this issue, the lack of trust will linger on.

Trust in public institutions and in the police are essential to a well- adjusted society. When police officers misbehave, they hurt their victims, they hurt the people who witnessed the illegal behaviour, they hurt themselves and the institution of policing, and they hurt all of us because it is in our name that they carry out their powers of arrest and detention. Police brutality affects us all: it is a betrayal of the rule of law as people bound to maintain the law abuse it. A public inquiry is an investment in better policing for the future, in ensuring that the right people are blamed for what went wrong and not the police officers that acted appropriately. Not knowing why orders were given to disperse the people quietly sitting at Queen’s Park, not knowing why police officers pulled off Mr. Pruyn’s artificial leg, why they pushed and shoved many bystanders, why horses were called, why rubber bullets were fired, why people were kettled for hours not knowing what to do, why people were arrested with tasers in their face while they were in their pajamas, why fire trucks did not come to extinguish the cars on fire, why a group of vandals were left free to continue their destruction while close to 20,000 police officers were in town, not knowing what went wrong is a disservice to us all.

The G20 was a moment of truth for Canadian democracy. The response to the security displayed at the G20, like the War Measures Act forty years ago, will be a turning point for our democracy: either we will emerge with stronger democratic institutions, regulatory regimes, accountability frameworks and better policing , or we will have tolerated mass violations of civil liberties with callous indifference.