Ottawa
2 min

Our run-in with provocateurs

Police infiltrated gay demos to stir up trouble

It’s Feb 20, 1981, two weeks after the largest bathhouse raid in Canadian history. Over 300 people had been arrested at four downtown Toronto bathhouses, igniting one of the gay community’s most intense periods of protesting ever. It was not just the size of the arrest — called, at the time, the largest mass arrest since the invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970 — but the violence: men were roughed up, humiliated, spat at and abused by cops.

By Feb 20, there had already been several red-hot protests, including a boisterous 3000-strong protest the day after the raids. But on this day, the crowd is even bigger-4000 gays, lesbians and supporters.

At the very head of the march, holding one of the rally’s banners, were four men eventually outted as plainclothes police officers.

As Gerald Hannon wrote in the Body Politic (the national precursor to the Xtra chain of newspapers) in 1981:

“Some witnesses, including several demonstration marshals, reported incidents which indicated that the altercations which lead to the six arrests took place at the provocation of undercover cops. It is reported that they ripped the leading banner almost in half, spat in people’s faces and finally provoked fights resulting in the arrest of three marshals who attempted to stop the fighting. At least one of the marshals under arrest was manhandled, kicked and abused.”

As Hannon reported, it was not an isolated incident. Police had infiltrated at least three other protests in the previous two weeks.

Twenty six and a half years later, I was reminded of the incident reading the evolving police denials — and eventual admission — surrounding the Quebec provincial police’s handling of the Security And Prosperity Partnership meeting in Montebello.

The details are by now well known, thanks to Youtube. Three masked men try to whip up the protesters into a frenzy. Union leader Don Coles accuses them of being undercover police. The masked men breach the police line where, during a show arrest, the soles of their police-issue boots give them away. Three days later, the Quebec police acknowledges that the men were, in fact, police officers.

Following the Toronto bathhouse raids, police thuggery was denounced widely in both the gay and straight community (we had among our champions at the time June Callwood, Margaret Atwood and Jack Layton.) A motion introduced to Toronto city hall called for a public inquiry into police behaviour. (In fact, it passed through one chamber of the two-tiered municipal structure: Toronto City Council gave its approval, but the Metro City Council defeated it.)

The undercover police even ended up on the cover of Toronto’s mainstream dailies, the shame of the Toronto police. Police efforts to stir up the crowd and generate arrests in the wake of Toronto’s gay bathhouse raids were a public stain on their reputation. But nothing was done about it.

Underhanded police behaviour at the SPP demonstrations-and particularly the flagrant use of agents provocateurs-were widely denounced. There were calls for a public inquiry, but again they fell on deaf ears. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day washed his hands of it and the Quebec police bigwigs have also said no.

Our community needs to be vigilant about basic freedoms when it comes to the political process-free speech and freedom of assembly especially. As a group that vigorously uses such freedoms and as a group that is vulnerable to police harassment, the Quebec police’s behaviour is worrying-and needs to be opposed in no uncertain terms.