A black eye for democracy
June 30, 2010. By Steve Paikin, Citizen Special
With apologies to the prime ministers, presidents, and chancellors of the G20 countries, the biggest story this past weekend was what happened to democracy in Canada’s largest city.
It was, plain and simply, an unprecedented weekend for Toronto.
First, the Ontario government, almost by stealth, passed a new regulation authorizing the police to act in ways which many would consider to be inconsistent with our democratic traditions. The government believed that unprecedented action was necessary to keep the peace, or so it said.
The Toronto Police Service, which normally has excellent support among those it serves, is facing some appropriately tough questions, now that the summit is over.
Too many officers seem to have overreacted numerous times in dealing with members of the public and journalists. They used too much force in detaining many people who either were protesting peacefully, or were just passing by at the wrong time.
And yet, they were also caught, if you’ll forgive the pun, flat-footed and completely unprepared for the goons and thugs who destroyed so much property on Yonge Street on Saturday. Supposedly, that’s why we spent more than $1 billion on security — to prevent this from happening. And yet, on Canada’s longest street, at Canada’s busiest intersection, in the middle of the afternoon, the police were nowhere to be seen as members of the so-called Black Bloc darted in and out of crowds, just long enough to take pick-axes to store-front windows.
Where were the police then?
I have no doubt that seeing their cruisers torched and property destroyed had the effect of putting the city’s police force on edge. However, I witnessed inexplicable behaviour by too many police officers.
The most curious was the assault I saw on Jesse Rosenfeld, a contributor to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. Jesse and I were both told by police on Saturday night to leave a downtown Toronto location, where a crowd of a few hundred mostly middle class people had the temerity to gather, then sit in the street and offer a simple message: that despite the gathering of the most important leaders in the world, citizens don’t suddenly lose their right to free speech or freedom of assembly.
One officer told me, leave now, or be arrested. I didn’t see how I could do much reporting in a jail cell, so I was “escorted” away from the crowd by another officer.
Rosenfeld, however, firmly but unceasingly, requested the right to stay and continue to cover the story he was witnessing. As a result, two officers held him while a third punched him hard in the stomach. As Rosenfeld collapsed forward, that same third officer drove his elbow into Rosenfeld’s back.
It seemed an unnecessary overreaction — three officers to subdue an asthmatic journalist who looked all of 5’6″ tall, maybe 145 pounds, and, I later learned, is missing one kidney.
Out of sight and unavailable for interviews have been any members of the Ontario government, who passed what many consider to be a draconian regulation to an existing law. The premier’s office today referred all questions about what transpired this past weekend to the federal government or the Toronto Police Service.
Meanwhile, Kate Holloway, who ran for the Liberals in the 2007 election in a downtown Toronto riding, had a frightening weekend. Her son Sam and his girlfriend Rose were simply watching one peaceful demonstration Saturday night. But they got arrested anyway. They spent a night in jail and neither of Sam’s parents had any idea where they were.
Kate told me yesterday she is so disgusted with her party’s passing this new regulation, she is washing her hands of the McGuinty government and the Ontario Liberal party.
In Toronto the Good, 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 — more than 900 at last count — 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.
Back in the early 1960s, the government of John Robarts tried to pass a similarly far-reaching law (Bill 99), which would have given the police powers similar to what they had this weekend. The government’s own backbenchers found the law so inappropriate and inconsistent with our democratic traditions that they mutinied. Premier Robarts’ attorney-general, Fred Cass, was forced to withdraw the bill and resign.
I have lived in Toronto for more than three decades. I have covered my share of demonstrations. We have a wonderful history of peaceful democratic protest in this city. But at the incident I found myself in on Saturday night, democracy took a major step backwards. And many will have to answer for that.