The G20 Summit, Protests, and Policing

Decisions made by a “Joint Command Centre” in Barrie—more than 100km from Toronto—resulted in peaceful marchers, shoppers, and journalists being arrested while rioters went free. Yet all three levels of government have largely chosen to draw a line under the whole fiasco

By Ron Shirtliff | 2010-10-01 01:00:00

Days after the G20 summit in downtown Toronto, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association launched a petition demanding a public inquiry (see box, this page).

The call was echoed by Amnesty International. Shanaaz Gokool, the chair of Amnesty International Canada, said “what happened over the G20 weekend threatened the rights and freedoms of all Canadians.”

The Ontario Federation of Labour supported the call for a G20 public inquiry. “Harper and McGuinty should cut their losses and call this public inquiry,” The Council of Canadians called for “an independent public inquiry into police actions and security operations during the G20 summit in Toronto June 26 and 27.”

The Globe and Mail titled its editorial “Vague Summit Laws Need Clarity,” while the Toronto Star noted “Tackling all these concerns goes well beyond what a board-appointed review can accomplish. Only through a public inquiry can we be certain to have a forum with a broad enough mandate and sufficient power to address the lingering questions—and give the public confidence in the answers.”

The Facebook group Canadians Demanding a Public Inquiry into Toronto G20 claimed 52,882 members during the first two weeks after the mass arrests. Rebecca Harrison-White, one of the group’s administrators, said people are eager for “an unbiased independent source that will expose all the facts of what happened over the weekend.”

Austerity Summit?

Most people would agree that an assembly of world leaders requires considerable security and this is likely to be costly and to cause some inconvenience for a community. The G8 in Muskoka, held over two days just before the G20, caused a minimum of social disruption. But shutting down the core of Toronto won little sympathy from local daycares, commuters, street people, and businesses. Those businesses which suffered property damage at the hands of the unconstrained Black Bloc, are still being denied compensation from the budget of the billion dollar summit. The security apparatus was successful in protecting the leaders; Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) reported that they found no terrorist plot to attack. However, it was soon apparent to many observers that the billion dollar price tag for security at the G20 Summit in Toronto was not meant to pay for the protection of the civil rights of civilians who wished to peacefully demonstrate for the causes they felt should be addressed by the G20 leaders.

Troubling to some was that the meeting was already known as the “austerity summit” which would be an agreement by the leaders to transfer the public debt created to bail out the irresponsible banks and other financial institutions onto the most vulnerable citizens through cuts to public services. Many people had reasons to demonstrate against that agenda. Some had reason to question the legitimacy of the G20 as leaders’ club, created to bypass the more democratic UN, a rich man’s club which most recently had been held responsible for the undermining of the Copenhagen conference on climate change. And further, in their last summit in London the same group had failed to agree to regulate the financial system that had recently caused such economic chaos. And now those same leaders were deciding that the bill had to be paid for by the least privileged in our societies through austerity.

The Black Bloc’s Free Rein

For many, the most incomprehensible and troubling public event of the summit weekend happened on the first day, Saturday afternoon, June 26, when a group described as the Black Bloc, reputed to be anarchists from Quebec, and monitored (even infiltrated) by police, arrived to cause trouble in Toronto. The group, estimated to number 75 to 100, hastily donned black balaclavas, broke out of a much larger peaceful procession down Yonge Street to vandalize property. Hard for observers to understand was the complete absence of a significant police response. The Black Bloc, who do not reject violence, took advantage of the situation to vandalize storefronts as well as to attack and burn mysteriously abandoned police cars. The press was on the job (they, if not the police, knew where the action was) and recorded the violence. Still the police were effectively absent. The resulting visual footage was great material for the media and instantly circumnavigated the world. In Toronto, some twenty thousand officers equipped with the most modern communications and with the G20 Integrated Security Unit (in a control centre in Barrie) watching an array of 85 street cameras in the downtown, did not result in police intervention at this critical time.

Perhaps humiliated by their obvious failure to protect public property, over the next 36 hours, police took about 1105 demonstrators, journalists and onlookers—almost all of them peaceful—into custody.

It may have been the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. However, more than 700 of the detainees were released without charge. Numerous allegations have since emerged of police insensitivity, arbitrary detentions and denial of civil rights. After the first court appearances in mid-August, only 220 charges remained, and these continue to trickle through the courts.

Inquiries and Excuses

There was an immediate official response to these events; On June 30 the Toronto Police Services Review Board expressed “profound appreciation” for the way the police performed their services. After an emotional session, Toronto City Council unanimously commended the Toronto Police Service’s “outstanding” G20 work, lauding police chief Bill Blair for his leadership. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty were quick to agree that no inquiry was needed.

Only days later the Police Services Board reversed itself, backed off from fulsome support, and launched an inquiry of its own. Critics were quick to speculate that this reversal was a move to cool the rising chorus of demands for a potentially more effective inquiry at the federal or provincial level. The Police Services Board inquiry will be limited to dealing only with actions of the Toronto Police and will not have the power to investigate the larger command structure and the actions of the RCMP and other security agents. In late September the TPSB finally developed terms of reference and appointed John Morden, former associate chief justice, to preside. He is free to ask qustions, but will not have the subpoena power to force players at all police and government levels to testify.

What logic led the federal government to locate the meetings in downtown Toronto, rather than at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) grounds as suggested by Toronto mayor David Miller? Would the prime minister want the planning and tactical decisions made by the Integrated Security Unit (which directed police actions from a monitoring centre in Barrie) probed? Would the premier of Ontario want details of how the province declared the 1939 Public Works Protection Act—and then not correcting the police when they publicly misrepresented it—made public? Would the various police forces care to explain their failure to monitor the actions of the Black Bloc, even as they claimed to have infiltrated them? Would they care to explain the subsequent mass arrests? Was this really about protecting the leaders of the G20 from threats?

A lot of people were unhappy with the facts. By Sunday midnight there were 1,105 arrests, reportedly the largest group arrest in the nation’s history. And after arbitrary detention some 700 were released without charge; many made accusations of unprofessional behavior, insensitivity, and even brutality. Civil rights and civility were trampled by those charged with the responsibility “to serve and protect”.

Even before the summit the emphasis was not about how the leaders would be protected from terrorists, but rather on the crowd control measures that the police could use to battle demonstrators. They trotted out their new sound cannons, made news of caches of bricks hidden under shrubbery, suggesting they were real weapons purposely secreted away, not carelessly dropped construction materials. They were spoiling for a fight with members of the public and provided temporary detention facilities to handle a thousand or more, With that mindset it is hardly surprising that they got what they wanted.

The strategy—if it was strategy and not just incompetence—of giving the Black Bloc a free hand to align public support behind tough policing was a public relations coup. It worked so well that most subsequent media articles about the G20 weekend, positive or negative, (including this one) were coupled with the best images that came out of that well-recorded but unsupervised rampage of the Black Bloc. A good picture can obscure a thousand rational words.

The police did not come off well. Not only did they let the Bloc free rein, but they subsequently surrounded, herded, denied dispersal, and used excessive force against hundreds of peaceful demonstrators. At first the police denied using rubber bullets on Sunday outside the Eastern Avenue Detention Centre, claiming that they had only used such weapons against protesters at Queen’s Park (itself more than two kilometres away from the protective summit fence and a designated “protest zone”).

The next day, police herded a crowd of demonstrators, media, and passersby at the Queen and Spadina intersection, held them for hours in heavy rain, and seemingly randomly dragged individuals off to detention.

Veteran TV journalist Steve Paikin remarked in the Ottawa Citizen following the summit, “In Toronto we saw a law passed and enforced that was more anti-democratic than the War Measures Act. And we saw twice as many people arrested over a single 24-hour period in Toronto than what took place during the October Crisis in Quebec 40 years ago. And that event is in our history books as the most notorious abuse of civil rights in modern Canadian history.”

And that is precisely why an inquiry, federal or provincial, with the power to get at the facts is needed. The current inquiries, all five of them, are not up to the job.

Petition for an Independent Inquiry

“The actions of the government and the police during the G20 Summit demonstrate the need for answers, accountability, and action. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is calling for:

1) An independent inquiry into the actions of the police during the G20, including:

2) Repeal or amendment of the Public Works Protection Act to meet basic constitutional standards; and

3) Law reform to ensure that the Criminal Code provisions relating to “breach of the peace”, “unlawful assemblies” and “riots” are brought in line with constitutional standards.”

—Canadian Civil Liberties Association, June 30, 2010. Add your name to the petiton by emailing g20petition@ccla org.

Ron Shirtliff is an editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2010

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2010, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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