3 min

Bill Blair turns back the clock to before Charter

Police have crossed a line by arresting peaceful protestors at Toronto G20

Credit: Flickr, CC 2.0, PastePie / Paste Berlusconi

Toronto police last weekend lost track of what their job is and whom they work for, and in the process introduced a new wrinkle in human-rights violations.

Of course, as so many sad things do these days, it all started with Stephen Harper.

Our global star of a PM set off a stink bomb of his own at the G8 summit when he ignored pleas from city politicians to hold the international economic gabfest at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. The CNE is tucked away near the lakefront, away from vulnerable stores and small businesses and is home to a convention centre that could host the talks. And it is surrounded by fences, a perfect place to avoid ‘collateral damage’ in the inevitable protest wars that accompany the world’s most elite circus.

But Harper insisted on a meeting in the downtown core, surrounded by stores, homes and canyoned streets. How could he be unaware of the history of the small pack of G8 groupies who can’t bear to miss a chance to smash windows or throw bricks — and lack the humour or intellectual rigour to instead make signs or come up with snappy slogans to sing or chant?

Harper spent more than a billion dollars (money that could have gone instead to arts funding, restoring the Court Challenges Program, even his beloved maternity health program) to import thousands of cops from across Canada. All so he could strut with his new best friends from China and Britain. Those cops were focussed on protecting Harper’s pals by keeping people far away from his waterfront playground; so intently focussed that they didn’t have officers keeping peace on the streets nearby as 21st century bandits without brains smashed the windows of coffee shops.

More than 10,000 cops protected the prime minister while shopkeepers saw their small profits crash in shards of glass.

And then it got even worse as more cops were brought into the core and zeroed in on the wrong target: peaceful protesters. In multiple locations, but starting Saturday afternoon at the commons around Queen’s Park legislature (a longstanding space for protests big and small) police surrounded citizens exercising their right to protest (and some who were just passing through), gassed, strong-armed and arrested them.

By Sunday, the technique was in full flight. And the police had invented a serious new wrinkle in human-rights violations. Journalists were arrested for doing their jobs and politically involved citizens were arrested while speaking out against things like the lack of action on global warming. News reports clearly showed police systematically arresting innocent people.

And the mayor praised the police chief for it. For his part, chief Bill Blair claimed on CBC Monday morning, that because some vandals were hiding among legitimate protesters, the police had the right to first corrall people, and then make mass arrests — some 900 before the weekend was out.

The peaceful protesters, said Blair, were “arrested for breach of the peace because through their actions they were creating the opportunity for these criminals to attack our city.” In other words, he was holding responsible the environmental demonstrators, labour demonstrators, people protesting China’s oppression of Tibet, anti-globalization protesters, and global-warming activists for the fact that vandals were hiding amongst them.

Blair acknowledges that these people, who included many gays and lesbians, had no connection to the vandals (he calls the vandals a ‘criminal conspiracy’) but claims that by their presence and by their actions — by which he presumably means that by failing to make citizen’s arrests — they were “fully complicit.”

That’s not only absurd, it’s dangerous. It’s anti-democratic and contrary to much that is great about our nation. In Canada, we have a right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. We have a right to demonstrate against G8 conferences — and we have a right to protest against anti-G8 protesters.

In the gay community, we’ve had some vigorous demonstrations, most notable those against the bathhouse raids of the 1980s in Toronto. The righteous rage of those demonstrators included throwing themselves against the huge wooden doors of the Ontario legislature. The Toronto Pride Parade evolved directly from those raids and the anger of the city’s gays and lesbians. Our parades have been political, sometimes vigorously so. We have a clear interest in making sure that the police know that their job is to respect our Charter and whom they work for.

So, let’s be clear: It is the job of the police, not the large number of legitimate protesters, to arrest the small number of vandals. It is the job of the police to know the difference between vigorous protest and actual crime. It is the job of the police to protect the rights of protest that are guaranteed in our Charter.

In short, the police don’t want to hear it but they work for the protesters, all of us, and not just Stephen Harper.