Sprayguns and glowing hearts
August 07th, 2012
If you saw the APEC demonstrations at UBC first-hand, you’d know how students were thwarted by police from making any meaningful contact with APEC leaders such as General Suharto of Indonesia. Their frustration at being unable to confront the likes of the now-deposed dictator understandably gave rise to civil disobedience.
The likes of Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King – and Vancouver’s own George Woodcock – have lucidly explained why civil disobedience can be necessary. Here the past-president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Andrew Irvine, provides a précis for the book Pepper in Our Eyes: The APEC Affair by W. Wesley Pue, Professor of Legal History at the University of British Columbia.
In a healthy democracy, Canadians’ constitutionally protected right to free speech is not something that may be overridden at the mere whim of individual police officers or our political leaders. If citizens are not permitted to speak freely in public or to become involved in political protest groups without fear of state surveillance or intimidation, this strikes at the very core of the democratic ideal.
Alternatively, if the RCMP during APEC allowed itself to be used by the Prime Minister’s Office for political ends, this is not something to be dismissed lightly. Canadians across the country need to be assured that Canada’s chief law enforcement agency is not being used for partisan political purposes. Democracy itself is in peril whenever the police are used, not to protect citizens’ rights or to enforce the law, but to violate those rights in order to advance either ordinary or extraordinary political objectives.
In the late 1970s, the MacDonald Commission of Inquiry into Certain Acts of the RCMP found that the RCMP had infiltrated many non-violent public interest organizations in the name of state security, including political parties such as the Parti Québecois. It also found that the RCMP had compiled dossiers on tens of thousands of Canadian citizens, and that it had engaged in “dirty tricks” to discredit various political groups.
The main outcome of the MacDonald Commission was that it became illegal for the ECMP to engage in such activities. If it turns out that the RCMP is still engaging in such tactics today, this is something for which not only the RCMP, but also our federal political leaders, will have to be held accountable.
It is these issues – even more than the widely reported accusations that police officers may have used excessive force while trying to control protesters – that justify the length, and costly, Public Complaint Commission (PCC) hearings into the events of November 1997. When independent commissioner Ted Hughes’ final report eventually appears, it very likely will be well worth reading.
Meanwhile W. Wesley Pue, Nemetz Professor of Legal History at the University of British Columbia, has put together a primer for anyone interested in learning about the importance of these events.
Pepper in Our Eyes: The APEC Affair (UBC) provides a broad range of contributors.
• Terry Milewski, the CBC report who was barred from reporting on APEC after the CBC received complaints from the Prime Minister’s Office, has written an important chapter on the role of an independent fourth estate.
• Gerald Morin, the chair of the original, ill-fated, independent commission looking into events surrounding APEC, has written the damning inside story of how and why that commission came to a grinding halt.
• Gil Puder, the late Vancouver Police Department constable, widely known for his outspoken advocacy of criminal justice reform, is among other contributors such as Joel Bakan (a UBC expert on Canadian constitutional law), Donald Sorochan, general counsel for the British Columbia Police Commission, Arnab Guha, President of the APEC-University Forum and a pro-APEC doctoral student and Jane Kelsey (author of The New Zealand Experiment: A World Model for Structural Adjustment).
Pepper in Our Eyes: The APEC Affair does not pre-judge the issue of whether the RCMP acted outside its lawful mandate while trying to control demonstrators at UBC. Contributors do not claim that excessive force was used by individual officers; nor do they tell us whether the actions of the RCMP were inappropriately influenced by political directives from the PMO. What they do explain is why these issues are important for all Canadians.
Pepper in Our Eyes does, however, help readers understand why any suggestion that a balance is to be struck between the expression rights of Canadian citizens and the political objectives of our politicians is one that needs to be categorically rejected.
It’s hard to read these pages without concluding that the rights of Canadian citizens are something that should never be reduced or eliminated, even upon the demand of our highest elected officials.
Certainly circumstances will arise in which a proper balance needs to be struck between the rights of citizens and the safety of visiting dignitaries. But there is all the difference in the world between genuine issues of security and the advancement of partisan political objectives.
After reading Pepper in Our Eyes, I cannot help but conclude that the discomfort or embarrassment of local or visiting dignitaries – whether of visiting dictators such as Indonesia’s then-President Suharto, or of our own Prime Minister – is never a legitimate reason for restricting the expression rights of Canadian citizens. As George Orwell reminds us, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Top ten concerns arising from the RCMP’s alleged mishandling of protests at the 1997 Asia Pacific Economic Corporation summit.
1. RCMP threatened to arrest students unless they removed their protest signs.
2. RCMP arrested one student for refusing to remove a sign that bore the simple message Free Speech.
3. RCMP further compromised the free speech rights of Canadian citizens by forcing protestors who were detained, as a condition of their release, to sign an undertaking that they would not publicly criticize any APEC nation during the remainder of the APEC summit.
4. RCMP forced students to restrict their protests to specific zones far removed from the view of visiting dignitaries and their motorcades, and that they did so contrary to prior agreements with the University of British Columbia.
5. RCMP removed a Tibetan protest flag that was flying outside designated security zones in order to placate local Chinese students and visiting Chinese dignitaries.
6. RCMP may have used unnecessary and excessive force while trying to control demonstrators.
7. RCMP failed to supervise armed foreign security forces properly, and this may have compromised the safety of Canadian citizens and dictated which student groups were and were not allowed to continue their protests.
8. RCMP treated some protestors more harshly than others; for example, strip searching women but not men who were arrested.
9. RCMP infiltrated and engaged in surreptitious surveillance of non-violent and law-abiding protest groups in the weeks preceding the APEC Summit.
10. RCMP, by acting outside their lawful authority, may have sacrificed the rights and liberties of Canadian citizens in order to advance a number of purely political objectives of the Prime Ministers’ Office.
Essay Date: 2000