I’ve never met Jonathan Oppenheim, but at some point in the past three years, I’ve made it onto his e-mail list. Since then, I’ve received several dozen e-mails from him, mostly updates on the three-year APEC or, SprAyPEC, if you will, inquiry.
Oppenheim was one of the complainants, a student activist arrested during demonstrations against the November, 1997, Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Conference (APEC) at the University of British Columbia. At issue were the human rights violations and the exploitation of natural resources in the Pacific Rim by the eighteen-member nations of APEC; the presence of China’s Jiang Zemin and Indonesia’s General Suharto; and the repressive security measures of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Students organized a comprehensive, sophisticated and utterly peaceful campaign of public education and civil disobedience.
In light of Seattle, Quebec city and Genoa, what ensued in Vancouver – the arrests, the pepper spray, the strip searches – all so shocking then, now just looks like a dress rehearsal for the continued and increasing suppression of public dissent.
Still, when Ted Hughes’ report on the inquiry into police conduct at the APEC conference was leaked and then released on Monday, I looked forward to Oppenheim’s inevitable e-mail. Though he called the bulk of it “as exciting to read as toilet paper,” he passed along “some juicy bits” to his mailing list. My favourite was Hughes’ many criticisms of the bullying conduct of Jean Carle, then one of the Prime Minister’s top aides. Carle has since left public life and is apparently working for Montreal’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. “I am not making this up,” writes Oppenheim.
Like activist Jaggi Singh, who seems to be arrested every time he so much as looks at a megaphone, Oppenheim doesn’t hold out much hope for the non-binding recommendations of the report. Singh called it “one of the most expensive door stops ever,” while Oppenheim told the press that “although the report is very tough on both the RCMP and the federal government, I don’t expect any of the recommendations to be implemented in any meaningful way.”
The inquiry was mired in controversy and, perhaps, doomed to irrelevancy from the start. First, then-federal solicitor-general Andy Scott was allegedly overheard on an airplane discussing the issue with a friend. Then, APEC protesters walked out after repeatedly being denied public assistance for their case, though the RCMP and the government used public funds to pay their legal staff.
Scott eventually resigned, but then Gerald Morin, head of the inquiry panel, was accused of bias by an RCMP officer. Morin denied it and, when a judge demanded that the a federal court examine the allegations, Morin and the two other panelists resigned, citing interference by the head of the RCMP Complaints Commission. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office complained to the CBC’s ombudsman about reporter Terry Milewski, claiming his coverage of the inquiry was one-sided. (An ombudsman dismissed all charges of bias, but after Milewski’s private correspondence was made public at the inquiry, he was withdrawn from covering the story.)
In December 1999, Ted Hughes, a former judge, took over. In February 2000, he invited Prime Minister Jean ChrÃ©tien to testify. He declined. Almost immediately, several student protesters quit the inquiry.
Hughes’ findings are critical, citing widespread incompetence and constitutional violations on the part of the RCMP. However, the one player the APEC activists most wanted to see nailed, the Teflon Prime Minister, he of the “for me, pepper, I put it on my plate” quip, went unscathed. (It’s official: Scientists are now studying ChrÃ©tien around the clock to see if there’s an offence he can’t get away with.) Not that there wasn’t evidence of the PM’s role in directing the security arrangements, including a series of leaked e-mails and internal correspondence in the weeks leading up to the hearings.
Still, some commentators and anti-corporate activists have expressed satisfaction with the report, saying that, at the very least, it will set a standard for police behaviour at future protests, like the ones certain to erupt at next summer’s G-8 summit in Kananaskis. But I wonder if that’s just an attempt to find some meaning in almost four years of an often-blundering inquiry at enormous public expense.
As Oppenheim put it to the media, “Don’t forget, the very same people that were responsible for the APEC crackdown are going to be the people that are going to be implementing (the report’s) recommendations.”