One of the hallmarks of a democratic state is its commitment to free, and public, political expression.
Indeed, no society can call itself truly democratic if it does not guarantee to its citizens the inalienable rights to gather, communicate their opinions, and demonstrate their support for or against any political position they wish.
If these assertions are true — and they can hardly be questioned — Canada’s behaviour during the G20 Summit held this summer in Toronto casts serious doubt on the current state of democracy in this country.
Consider these facts:
• June 26 to 28, 2010 saw the largest mass arrests in Canada’s history.
• Without warning or cause, innocent bystanders and peaceful protesters were encircled by police and imprisoned in cages.
• Sleeping students were awakened at gunpoint, kicked in the ribs and paraded before the media in handcuffs as they were marched off to jail cells.
• Police illegally searched people and seized their property at will. Cell phones were taken and police openly scrolled through people’s phone records and read their emails right on the street.
• Citizens were deprived of their right to counsel, and to be advised of the charges against them.
• People in detention were subjected to base humiliations, including being forced to toilet themselves in front of mixed genders, deprived of tissue, medicine, shoes and eyeglasses.
• Racist, sexist and violent taunts and threats were spewed by guards at those detained.
• Draconian and unnecessary bail conditions and violations of Canadians’ mobility rights, including restrictions on even entering the province of Ontario, were imposed on almost every arrested person.
• Months later, when the State was compelled to establish the grounds upon which it acted, charges were withdrawn against almost every one of the 1,100 people it arrested.
• In the end, several thousand people were wholly deprived of their right to express their political beliefs while world leaders gathered in Toronto.
Just as disturbing, our own Canadian government has shown a complete lack of interest in the brazen and pervasive violations of the Constitutional and democratic rights of our citizens.
In fact, the Harper Conservatives have been openly contemptuous of every attempt to shed light on these flagrant breaches. They have refused to acknowledge that abuses occurred, tried to frustrate efforts to get at the truth, and engaged in a shameful attempt to blame our citizens for the excesses of the police.
As the New Democrat Critic for Public Safety, I have spearheaded efforts to determine who was responsible for these outrageous actions, and hold them accountable.
Through motions filed in July and September, and over the negative votes of the government members, we secured five days of hearings before the Public Safety Committee.
The first three days of hearings are now completed — and the results thus far have been as stunning as they are disturbing.
• Public Safety Minister Vic Toews gave a full 10 minute statement on his view of the G20 security delivery — and managed not to utter a single word about civil liberties or rights violations. Time and time again, he rebuffed every suggestion that breaches even occurred.
• Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair admitted that 90 — yes, 90 — police officers were found to have covered up their name and badge numbers while carrying out their duties in flagrant violation of TPS rules and the Chief’s own instructions. Questions regarding why his officers failed to get a proper warrant before bursting into the U of T gym, why they pulled guns on sleeping students and who ordered the dawn raid remain unanswered.
• No-one — not Minister Toews, National Security Advisor Marie-Lucie Morin, PCO Special Advisor Ward Elcock, ISU Chief Alphonse MacNeil, OPP Deputy Commissioner Larry Beechey, Chief Blair, no-one — would take any responsibility whatsoever for the thousands of violations of civil liberties that occurred over the course of the G20 Summit, or explain who made the decisions that led to them.
• Young female students testified that they were called “fucking little princesses from the middle class”, “fucking foreigners”, “fucking Frenchies”, detained for 60 hours, deprived of feminine hygiene products and left without food, water and medicine.
• In a striking (albeit oblivious) display of present-day McCarthyism, Conservative Committee member Brent Rathgeber actually asked a witness, “Are you a member of the Anti-Capitalist Coalition?” (I kid you not. Many of us held our breath in anticipation of the next words “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party…”. Inexplicably, but thankfully, they never came).
• Perhaps most alarming of all has been the clear rejection by our current Canadian government of the notion that it is their responsibility as elected representatives to hold the police accountable for their violations of our Constitutional and democratic rights.
Every government witness thus far, elected and otherwise, asserted that the police actions taken during the G20 were the result of “operational decisions” of the police that were “not the government’s business.” Allegations of civil rights abuses and complaints of police misconduct were, in their view, to be taken up purely with bodies charged with investigating police complaints.
In other words, it is no-one’s job to supervise the police and ensure they act in conformity with our Charter and Constitutional rights. According to them, we have no choice but to let the cops run amuck, watch our rights be trampled, and then let some ill-defined, poorly resourced and under-powered police complaint commissioner uphold our most cherished democratic entitlements.
This is nonsense.
What clearly happened this summer was one of the worst civil rights abuses our country has seen in decades. Our elected officials should be outraged and calling every single responsible police official to account immediately for their outrageous and flagrant abuses.
[Unless, of course, our elected officials were complicit in these abuses. In that case, even more serious sanctions are warranted].
After all, our Constitutional rights are not privileges. We do not have to justify our exercise of them to anyone, least of all the State. We have a right to expect that the police forces in this country are subservient to the Constitution and the political representatives we elect to uphold our democratic rights.
This is what distinguishes a democratic nation from a police state.
Of course, there are some conditions on the exercise of these rights.
Citizens must commit to keep the peace and behave lawfully. They must be held accountable for their actions and words. If they defame someone, utter hateful statements directed at identifiable groups or incite a riot, they can and must be held responsible.
But provided these obligations are met, people in a democracy must be absolutely free to assemble, speak, march and placard to their heart’s content.
As I write this, it is November 10 — the day before Remembrance Day.
On that day, we recall the many millions of people, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians, who gave their lives so we could live in a nation with democratic rights, free to express ourselves and be governed by the rule of law, and not of force.
As we continue our hearings into the G20 abuses, all members of Parliament would do well to remember such basic ideals.
Lest We Forget.
Don Davies is the MP for Vancouver Kingsway, New Democrat Public Safety Critic, and vice-chair, House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security.