On December 9, 2005, the eve of International Human Rights day, the Carole Geller Human Rights Award was awarded to Dissent on Trial, a group formed as a result of the mass arrest of 243 people who were participating in a protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) mini-Ministerial meeting in Montreal on June 28, 2003.
The arrests have been criticized for being a deliberate assault on human rights. “The arrests took place two hours after the march had ended and dispersed, and two kilometres from the site of the protest,” said Shelagh Day, a member of the awards committee. “Hundreds of people were surrounded by police and not allowed to disperse. They were arrested and detained for 36 hours. It was clear that people were being punished for exercising their rights.”
The crown proceeded with criminal charges of unlawful assembly. After more than two years in the court system, the crown withdrew the charges when they refused to hand over evidence that was critical for a fair trial.
The award includes a $1,500 prize and is given periodically to an individual or group making an extraordinary sacrifice or involved in a particularly important human rights struggle. “This is a critical case due to the deliberateness of the civil rights violations,” said Murray Dobbin, also a member of the Carole Geller awards committee. “The resolve of Dissent on Trial to challenge these charges makes the group a very worthy recipient of the award.”
The case has recently attracted the attention of the UN’s Human Rights Committee. The committee’s November 2, 2005 report raised concerns that in Canada “police, in particular in Montreal, have resorted to large-scale arrests of demonstrators.” The committee invited Canada to conduct an investigation into the actions of the Montreal police.
Carole Geller was one of Canada’s pioneers in advancing human rights. She began human rights work in Manitoba in 1967 and was appointed as the first Director of the Human Rights Commission of Saskatchewan in 1973. After receiving a Masters degree in Law at Osgoode Hall in 1987 she lost a year-long battle with cancer.
“No one was more determined in fighting for human rights and social justice,” said Shelagh Day, “Committee members know that she would have been extremely pleased with this choice for the award.”