John Sewell: City’s policing crisis is the scary lesson of G20

By John Sewell – 

As a police officer handcuffed a young woman and stuffed her into a paddy wagon during the G20 summit in Toronto on June 26, he said, “That’s what you get for protesting.”

This vignette, told by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, sums up pretty clearly the attitude taken by the police during the G20. More than 1,100 people were arrested—the largest mass arrest that has ever taken place in Canada: larger than in the Winnipeg General strike in 1919, larger than during the October crisis in Quebec in 1970.

What’s remarkable is that very few of the demonstrators were involved in anything more than marching on the streets, carrying banners and shouting slogans. Some of those arrested were passersby whom the police scooped up because they were in the vicinity of peaceful demonstrators when police boxed people in, then arrested them. Some, like the group from Quebec who were staying in a university dormitory, were awoken at night and arrested en masse. Even those demonstrators who were in the area in front of Queen’s Park—which the police themselves had established as a “free speech zone”—found that they were shot at by police with rubber bullets.

The police apparently had no interest in intervening to prevent a small breakaway group from setting fire to five police cars and vandalizing shops on Queen, Bay, College and Yonge streets. Police had established closed-circuit television cameras at more than 60 Downtown locations, but apparently decided just to watch the vandals on TV rather than get to the scene and prevent damage. Instead, police concentrated on arresting peaceful demonstrators, many of whom were released without charge after being detained for most of 24 hours.

Now, more than two months after this appalling display of how police power can trample the rights of citizens to engage in peaceful protest or otherwise go about their business, there are very few political leaders who will say police action was inappropriate. Toronto city council voted 36-0 to commend the police on their actions. Premier Dalton McGuinty remarked favourably on how the police acted, and Vic Toews, the federal minister of justice, has said the same. None of the leading candidates for mayor in the Oct. 25 municipal election have made an issue of what police have done.

Where is the police accountability? Do police in Toronto really have a free hand to search whomever they want without warrant, contrary to the Charter or Rights and Freedoms, and to arrest whomever they want without good reason? It’s a bit frightening to realize that the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an interview with the New Yorker magazine published August 16, justifies the action taken by his police against the Green Movement’s demonstrators in that country by implying it was not as tough as that taken by police in Toronto during the G20.

The Toronto Police Services Board has promised some kind of an inquiry, but has yet to agree on any terms of reference nor has it announced who might lead this exercise. One fears that as the municipal election approaches the board will allow its promises to drag on and on, unfulfilled. Ontario’s police complaints mechanism, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, has promised an inquiry into the actions of members of Ontario police forces, but again, there are no details about how this will proceed.

In any case, neither exercise will review the actions of the RCMP, which was in charge of the whole operation through the Integrated Security Unit and contributed 5,000 officers to the police presence. The NDP can be expected to support a federal inquiry when Parliament resumes later in September, but that will certainly be opposed by the Harper government.

The one charge laid under the controversial Public Works Protection Act—the legislation that apparently Chief Bill Blair asked the provincial Cabinet to invoke—will not proceed because the police have lost the file. Can you believe it? One suspects that at the end of the day only a handful of the 1,100 arrested, of whom 260 were released subject to repressive bail conditions (such as not being permitted to attend any demonstration of any kind including one asking for a public inquiry, or not using a telephone or a computer—can you believe it?) will be convicted by a court of any offense.

A class-action lawsuit has been started against the Toronto police and the federal attorney general on behalf of those arrested, detained and not charged, but one expects the police, with their extraordinary financial resources, to tie this up in legal arguments for years.

In short, we have a policing crisis here in Toronto. We have no mechanism to ensure police accountability or that the police act within the constraints of the law. That’s the scary lesson of the G20.