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Canadian police agencies: Innovators in militarization?

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In the wake of Ferguson's militarized policing of protests, and the White House's recent decision to review the militarization of U.S. police agencies, Canadian police spokespeople are arguing that the militarization of police is not a concern in Canada. In a recent Edmonton Journal piece Tom Stamatakis, the president of the Canadian Police Association argued that the police do not have a militaristic mindset… "Our entire approach is based upon community relations."

While there is no Department of Homeland Security program in Canada that encourages local forces to militarize, Canadian police agencies have been early adopters of less lethal weapons like pepper spray, TASERs and rubber bullets. They are first used against people within day to day policing, as we know from the events surrounding the killing of Sammy Yatim. But such tools have a tendency to slide from ordinary policing to the specialized practices of protest policing, where Canadian police have been quick to adopt.

Hand held pepper spray (OC spray) canisters began to replace tear gas in the early 1990s. Initially proposed as a tool to be used between the baton and the gun, it was first targeted at protesters in North America in Ottawa. That was on May 31, 1993 when police used it against anti-racist protesters attempting to disrupt a neo-Nazi rock concert. The third time pepper spray was used against protesters in North America was also in Canada. It was also against anti-racist activists, protesting an election rally by Preston Manning.

Over the next few years, police forces across the country began to adopt the spray -- pausing only slightly after the RCMP made front page news when its officers sprayed protesters at the APEC summit in Vancouver in November 1997.

Especially given the relative size of the two countries, Canadian police use of pepper spray against protesters remains disproportionately high. In 2012, according to a Lexis-Nexis search of all media sources, Canadian and U.S. police used pepper spray 28 times against protesters, 20 of which were during Montreal's student uprising, and one time in Toronto. Even in 2011 when Occupy was at its height, with mobilizations in hundreds of cities in the U.S., pepper spray was used 18 times, three of which were in Canada -- more than double what one would expect, given the size of the two populations, and police forces.

Following a similar arc, Canadian police used TASERS against protesters before U.S. police did. The first use of a TASER in a protest context in either country was in Quebec City during the 2001 Summit of the Americas, when an officer Tasered a man lying face down, waiting to be arrested. The second time police Tasered a protester was a few months later at Ottawa's G20 protests. The third time was Halifax police used it against anti-war protesters; and the fourth time was when Ottawa police attempted to dislodge Algerian refugees sitting in the Immigration Ministers office. The police use of plastic bullets to subdue protesters also has a particularly Canadian history -- with police firing 900 at protesters during the Quebec City protests of 2001.

Why would the use of less lethal weapons against protesters be more prevalent in Canada? This tendency is partly tied to the particular way the RCMP polices protest. That force adopted the British framework of intelligence-led decision-making which evaluates protest and protesters primarily in terms of the potential threat they pose. This approach blurs the lines between intelligence, national security and policing and has often corresponded with the development of 'worst case scenarios' that correspond with increased spending and increased militarization.

The dominant role the RCMP has in Canadian policing is also part of the story. The RCMP is one of only 250 police agencies in Canada, managing public order for a significant part of the country. In contrast, there are 40,000 police agencies in the U.S. -- meaning the influence of a single force is diluted.

The G20 protests in Toronto in 2010 should also make clear that militarization of protest policing is not only an American problem. At that event we saw a sound cannon, or Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) -- a weapon that emerged directly out of conflict in the Middle East, barricades, pre-emptive arrests and riot units. This is a trend that is widespread. And profitable. According to a 2013 market report by Markets and Markets, the non-lethal weapons market is expected grow from $880 million to $1,146 million by 2018. The report continues, "crowd dispersal non-lethal weapons segment is expected to have the highest demand in this market due to political dissent and unrest." It is essential that we are not complacent about such a trend.

Lesley J. Wood is the author of the new book Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing (Between the Lines/Pluto) and Associate Professor of Sociology at York University.

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