Last Thursday was Canada Day. I’ve never been anything close to patriotically Canadian, as a Mohawk citizen, but this year was a particular sore point.
Days earlier, myself and around 899 others were rounded up and detained in the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history. Many were picked up for simply participating in one of many peaceful demonstrations. Journalists were rounded up. Legal observers too. Many people simply out for a walk ended up getting “kettled” by the police, arbitrary arrest measures that ensure that everyone in a certain zone is detained, guilty or not.
On June 24, I had taken part in a national Indigenous Day of Action, called by the Defenders of the Land network, which brought out around 2,000 people to a rally in Toronto. Indigenous leaders and activists from Toronto and communities across the country — Barriere Lake and tar sands-impacted communities were particularly prominent — took the opportunity presented by the G20 to speak out against Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy and called for implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and investigation into the near 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The rally was a success and also featured an evening gathering. Many who participated in that day’s events were also out on Saturday, June 26, amongst thousands for the G20 protest, but that day didn’t smile as favourably on them.
As for me, I was one of thousands forced out of Queen’s Park, supposedly meant to be a “free speech zone” during the day. For the first time, I saw police demonstrate the snatch-and-grab technique, where they would randomly select (peaceful) protestors, run them down, tackle them, and often beat them — while yelling out things like “Stop resisting arrest!” or “Prisoner is biting!” A TTC worker on his way to work recounted how this was used on him.
After leaving Queen’s Park, protestors were virulent. They overtook Bloor, then Yonge, yelling “The pigs pushed us out!” and “The cops made us march!” Soon, we were face to face with the security wall, as officers scrambled away and let us be to chant and sing across from the wall. (I’ll never understand many protestors decision to sing “Oh Canada” at this point — maybe they still believed in that idea?) Soon after we found ourselves surrounded by police in riot gear.
It looked bleak — we backed away from the fence but were trapped against a wall, some 300 of us. Police advanced, clanging their shields in a brute show of intimidation. We weren’t going to give them a reason to take us. People began cheering “Peaceful protest!” as they sat down with their hands in the air. Finally, a group of us managed to talk to the police representatives, who agreed to let us pass through police lines. We were more than happy to carry on.
A few blocks later, our path already delineated by lines of riot cops, and we advanced again parallel to the fence. We were stopped by one line of police, a block away from the fence. The group decided to again sit down, choosing to ignore the torrential rains, and passed around the megaphone to declare our reasons for being in the streets to oppose the G20 agenda. A suggestion was made to move down the street a few blocks to the Novotel Hotel, where many of the G20’s delegates were staying. A fateful decision.
At the hotel we made a pretty big spectacle. Certainly nobody expected 200 of us, and we took over the narrow street and sidewalk. The crowd was peaceful to that point. Within minutes we were surrounded by police in full riot gear. They marched, beating their shields, demanding attention and obedience. We responded by sitting down on the ground, peace signs in the air, making it clear we had no violent intentions. One police leader came forward, asking to speak to a union representative — obviously confusing us with a rally by striking hotel workers earlier that week. When nobody filled that role, communications broke down.
The snatch-and-grabs began. Protestors were picked off seemingly at random, preference given to those who spoke on the megaphone. Media were told to leave the area or face arrest, with the exception of Jesse Rosenfeld, a writer for the UK’s The Guardian, who was assaulted and arrested because his Alternative Media Centre pass was not recognized. There was a complete sense of confusion, near panic. No explanation was offered, and it was only after about 20 people had been dragged away that the police let us know we were being arrested for “breach of the peace,” and could avoid being aggressively detained by lining up in front of them with our hands on our heads. At no point was any indication made of ways to disperse or desist from breaching whatever peace existed.
As our last act of defiance, the crowd sang a number of songs, most memorably Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” A few of us managed to get out word about what was happening, and the electronic media world erupted into a frenzy, as word reached us that reporters were being kept away. Afterwards, I found out that a few intrepid documentarians had footage of our arrest, including police shooting “pepper balls” at us — a mixture of tear gas and rubber bullets. Before being arrested, I managed to swap out my camera’s memory card with a blank one, and hide all my footage from that day in a hidden jacket pocket which wasn’t searched.
It was about 11 p.m. when the mass arrests started, and past 1 a.m. when they finally stripped us of our property, down to our belts and shoelaces, and processed us. After our hands and ankles were bound, I was loaded into the back of a paddy wagon for a while. Inexplicably, we were later transferred onto a waiting prison bus, a whole crew of us in the back. It was close to 2:30 a.m. before we left the area, and drove for half an hour to reach the makeshift detention centre, a converted film studio. There we spent another hour waiting on the bus, before entering the first of four cages which most of us had to pass through. The cages were about 8 by 12 feet, maybe 9 feet tall. I heard 40 people were crammed into one cell. Shortly after arriving, I recognized prisoners arriving who hadn’t been with us by the hotel. They told us they had been outside the prison, where they showed up for jail solidarity — peacefully chanting, singing, having food ready — when police again kettled them, and arrested a number of them.
Spirits were still high in the first cell, but gradually diminished. Some had already been waiting there over 12 hours, the police having lost their paperwork. This happened often. During this time the detainees had received one less-than-nutritious cheese sandwich and a glass of water — we also received one after arriving. After a few hours, I was processed further and moved to the second holding area, where I was stripped of my glasses, bracelets and jacket. It was nearly 7 a.m., and I had yet to sleep, so against all odds I passed out on the cold concrete floor for a while, despite the screams and yelling emanating from other cells. I woke up again to be moved to the third holding area, after meeting a police sergeant who read me my rights, including the right to legal counsel.
As I moved into the third area, I was placed into an empty cell. I took advantage of the peace and got some more sleep. I woke up to the presence of another prisoner in my cell who had also been at the Novotel protest. Two others soon followed. In the third cell, spirits withered into despair, frustration and anger as the day wore on. Peaceful songs gave way to cries of “Let us free!” “This is Bullshit!” and my personal favourite, “We want vegetables!” which precipitated a long period of people shaking their cages and doors. The four of us paced back and forth. I was finally granted access to a payphone to call legal defence, who explained my rights and the presumed process. Others were denied this right, police at times making fun of demands to speak to a lawyer.
Beyond that basic violation, many of us suffered other injustices and indignities. We were often refused water, food, and medical assistance. The building was kept very cold, making it impossible for many to get any sleep on the concrete floor. More seriously, toilet paper and tampons were denied, and many women complained of male officers watching them use the door-less portapotties. There were even reports of sexual harassment and threats against female prisoners. Again, it must be stressed, that nearly everyone in the facilities was being held without charge — not that this kind of treatment is merited under other circumstances.
After over 20 hours being detained, I was moved to the final holding area — called the catch-and-release zone — which was an admission that we were being brought in to keep us off the streets. Paperwork finally filed, we were read conditions of release that said we would be charged if detained again during the G20 — which lawyers have since asserted is an invented scare tactic, since conditions can’t be applied without charges. I was handed a bag of my things and pushed out the door into the torrential rain without my shoes on. I realized my backpack, wallet, and camera weren’t returned to me, and would find out later they were being held as evidence — a fate that befell many other photographers and videographers.
Then, just as quickly as we had been made illegal, we were free again. Outside, dozens of people were waiting, cheering with each release, and offering food and water. Other friends and colleagues were released that night, and we spent much of the night catching up. The next few days were intense, filled with rallies, media interviews, and meetings. It has been tough to understand everything that happened, including that we had no idea that hundreds more were rounded up on Sunday.
Much has been made of the official explanations for the police acting in such a punitive, arbitrary and violent way. They explained they went after the crowds because they contained “violent” Black Bloc elements — near impossible to determine, as those people had shed their clothing. We need to ask if this would ever be sufficient reason for suspending people’s basic rights, when the most damage seems to have been some police cars burnt — less than when hockey fans riot. Police carried out a dangerous form of collective punishment that tarnished everyone who publicly chose to disagree with Emperor Harper as violent criminals who needed locking up. And with those burning cars, the police would have us believe, went up in smoke the constitution, the Charter of Rights, international human rights law, and all common sense.
The police and their puppeteers may have bitten off more than they can chew. If they had simply picked up large numbers of activists, the response may have been more muted. Instead, they detained and often violently assaulted many of Canada’s top organizers, many members of the media, legal observers, and people out in the streets who learned that being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to your rights being suspended. Class-action lawsuits are being considered and prepared. Demands for a public inquiry grow, with thousands having participated in rallies from Montreal to Windsor. Organizations and activists who rarely find themselves working together, such as Amnesty International to No One Is Illegal to Indymedia journalists have found a new fight.
If there was anything positive to come from this experience, it would be just that. A group of individuals, organizations and social movements were united by the system of oppression they encountered in trying to express their rights. The most promising weapons remain those in the hands of the people. Our word, our dignity, our passion, our truth. If properly harnessed, we will be able to speak and act without fear of repression, violence and detention — and that’s something every citizen and non-citizen alike could be proud of.
More photos can be seen by clicking here.
Ben Powless is a Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario, and is currently studying Human Rights Indigenous and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. He has been involved with the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network, sits on the board of the National Council for the Canadian Environmental Network, and is on the Youth Advisory Group to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.