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Keeping the public in check

Special Mountie team, police tactics threaten right to free speech and assembly, critics say; Police targeting ordinary Canadians 'because they don't like their politics'

David Pugliese and Jim Bronskill The Ottawa Citizen

An intelligence source relayed word to the military that the Raging Grannies, a satirical singing group whose protest songs are designed to raise awareness of social justice and environmental issues, intended to hold a protest in the autumn of 1997.

Julie Oliver, The Ottawa Citizen / Faced with mass demonstrations such as the one at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April, the RCMP decided to establish a new unit, the Public Order Program, to find other non-lethal ways of controlling protests.

Faced with a growing number of large demonstrations, the RCMP has quietly created a special unit to deal with public dissent.

The new team of Mounties, called the Public Order Program, was established in May to help the force exchange secret intelligence and information on crowd-control techniques with other police agencies, according to an RCMP document obtained by the Citizen.

The RCMP's move to strengthen its capacity to control demonstrations comes amid increasing concern about how the government and police respond to legitimate dissent.

The new unit will also examine how to make better use of "non-lethal defensive tools," such as pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas, indicates the document, a set of notes for a presentation to senior Mounties earlier this year.

Select officers will be run through a "tactical troop commanders' course" to prepare them for dealing with public gatherings.

The Public Order Program is intended to be a "centre of excellence" for handling large demonstrations, allowing the Mounties to keep up with the latest equipment, training and policies, said RCMP Const. Guy Amyot, a force spokesman. "It gives us some more tools to work with."

The initiative, sparked by a spate of ugly confrontations between protesters and police at global gatherings, comes as Canada prepares to host leaders of the G8 countries in Alberta next year.

"With all the violence going on, we had to create a unit that could help us (with) providing security," said Const. Amyot.

But for some, the right to free speech and assembly in Canada has become precarious at best.

The recently released APEC inquiry report focused on certain questionable RCMP activities during the 1997 gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders in Vancouver, including the arrest of demonstrators and use of pepper spray. Almost overlooked in the review, however, was an apparent shift in police and government attitudes toward a "criminalization of dissent."

Behind the scenes, law enforcement agencies are directing their efforts at organizations and individuals who engage in peaceful demonstrations, according to civil rights experts. The targets are not extremists, but ordinary Canadians who happen to disagree with government policies.

Officers from various police forces and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have infiltrated, spied on or closely monitored organizations that are simply exercising their legal right to assembly and free speech. Targets of such intelligence operations in recent years, according to federal documents obtained by the Citizen, range from former NDP leader Ed Broadbent to the Raging Grannies, a senior citizens' satire group that sings about social injustice.

Individuals have been arrested for handing out literature condemning police tactics. Large numbers of Canadians and legitimate organizations, from the United Church of Canada to Amnesty International, have found themselves included in federal "threat assessment" lists alongside actual terrorist groups.

And in what some consider blatant intimidation, RCMP and CSIS agents are showing up unannounced on the doorsteps of people who voice opinions critical of government policy or who plan to take part in demonstrations.

In coming weeks, the Canadian Association of University Teachers will meet in Ottawa with senior RCMP officials to express grave concerns in the academic community about campus visits by the Mounties.

The meeting arises from the police force's questioning of Alberta professor Tony Hall about his views on the spring Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. A University of Lethbridge academic, Mr. Hall wrote an article critical of the effect of free trade agreements on indigenous people and was involved in organizing an alternative summit for aboriginals. Neither warranted a visit from police, say his colleagues.

"Whether you agree with him or not, I think he has the right to raise those questions," says David Robinson, associate executive director at the association of university teachers.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has led calls for an investigation into allegations police abused their powers by firing more than 900 rubber bullets and using 6,000 cans of tear gas to subdue protesters at the Quebec City summit in April. Also of concern for the association is the possibility police targeted individuals even though they were non-violent.

Others, such as University of British Columbia law professor Wesley Pue, say police operations against legitimate dissent have already crossed the line.

"When the police start spying on people because they don't like their politics, you've gone a long way away from what Canadian liberal democracy is supposed to be about," says Mr. Pue, editor of the book Pepper in Our Eyes: The APEC Affair.

Such notions are rejected by police and politicians. Quebec government officials have dismissed a call for a public inquiry into how officers treated protesters at the Quebec City summit. Quebec Public Security Minister Serge Menard summed up his attitude shortly before the summit: "If you want peace," he said, "prepare for war."

CSIS officials maintain they don't investigate lawful advocacy or dissent. The RCMP say they are simply doing their job in the face of more violent protests at public gatherings.

For his part, federal Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay doesn't see anything wrong with the RCMP questioning Canadians who want to take part in demonstrations.

In a July 31 letter to the university teachers' association, he defended Mountie security practices for the Quebec City event. "The RCMP performed ongoing threat assessments, which included contacting, visiting and interviewing a number of persons who indicated their interest or intention in demonstrating."

But civil rights supporters contend such statements miss the point. Merely signalling interest in attending a demonstration or openly disagreeing with government policies -- as in Mr. Hall's case and others -- shouldn't be grounds for police to question an individual. They say actions by police and CSIS over the last several years appear to have less to do with dealing with violent activists than targeting those who speak out against government policies.

For instance, in January, police threatened a group of young people with arrest after they handed out pamphlets denouncing the security fence erected for the Quebec City summit as an affront to civil liberties. Officers told the students any group of people numbering more than two would be jailed for unlawful assembly. A month later, plainclothes police in Quebec City arrested three youths for distributing the same pamphlet. Officers only apologized for the unwarranted arrests after media reported on the incident.

In the aftermath of the Quebec City demonstrations, some protesters were denied access to lawyers for more than two days. Others were detained or followed, even before protests began.

Police monitored the activities of U.S. rights activist George Lakey, who travelled to Ottawa before the summit to teach a seminar on conducting a peaceful demonstration. Mr. Lakey was questioned for four hours and his seminar notes confiscated and photocopied by Canada Customs officers. Later, a Canadian labour official who offered Mr. Lakey accommodation at her home in Ottawa was stopped by police on the street and questioned for 30 minutes.

Const. Amyot insists the RCMP recognize the right of people to demonstrate peacefully. "We have always said that, and we do respect that."

However, the events leading up to Vancouver's 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit set the stage for what some believe is now an unprecedented use of surveillance by the Mounties and other agencies against lawful groups advocating dissent. Before and during the APEC meetings, security officials compiled extensive lists that included many legitimate organizations whose primary threat to government appeared to be a potential willingness to exercise their democratic rights to demonstrate.

Threat assessments included a multitude of well-known groups such as the National Council of Catholic Women, Catholic Charities U.S.A., Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council of Churches, the Council of Canadians and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.

Intelligence agencies also infiltrated legitimate political gatherings. A secret report produced by the Defence Department, obtained through the Access to Information Act, details the extent of some of the spy missions. It describes a gathering of 250 people on Sept. 12, 1997, at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver to hear speeches by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and New Democrat MP Svend Robinson. "Broadbent is extremely moderate and cannot be classified as anti-APEC," notes the analysis, prepared by either CSIS or a police agency. "The demographics of the crowd was on average 45-plus, evenly divided between men and women. They were 95 per cent Caucasian and appeared to be working class, east end, NDP supporters."

Additional reports detailed a forum by the Canadian Committee for the Protection for Journalists and meetings planned by other peaceful organizations.

Law enforcement's notion of what constitutes a threat to government is disturbing to some legal experts. Law professor Wesley Pue notes that anyone's politics can be deemed illegitimate to those in power at some point in time. He sees irony in the recent mass protests against federal stands on trade and the environment. "The so-called anti-globalization movement articulates many views that were official Liberal party policy up until the government got elected," says Mr. Pue.

Police tactics used four years ago at APEC have since become commonplace at almost all demonstrations. Criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby has noted how police have found a way to limit peaceful protests. Demonstrators don't get charged for speaking publicly. Instead they are arrested for obstructing police if they don't move out of the way. In most cases, charges aren't laid or they are later dropped because of a lack of evidence. In the meantime, police usually insist bail conditions stipulate demonstrators stay away from a protest.

"We've made it so easy for governments to criminalize behaviour and speech they don't like," Mr. Ruby said around the time of the Quebec City summit. "They disguise the fact that they're punishing free speech."

Another disconcerting trend, according to civil liberties specialists, is the police practice of photographing demonstrators, even at peaceful rallies. Earlier this year, a whole balcony of cameras collected images of the non-violent but lively crowd outside the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa.

"There is now the idea that you can't be an anonymous participant at a public gathering," says Joel Duff, a protest organizer and former president of the University of Ottawa's graduate students association. "If you're not ready to have a police file, then you can't participate -- which in my view is a curtailment of your democratic rights."

The RCMP's Const. Amyot acknowledges police take photos of demonstrators, even if a protest is peaceful. The pictures can be used in court if the event turns violent, he notes.

But photos from peaceful demonstrations are destroyed, according to Const. Amyot. "We're not investigating these people," he says. "These are just being taken to ensure if something happens we'll know what happened so we'll have evidence for safety purposes."

But such tactics can have chilling effect on lawful dissent. After it was revealed at the APEC inquiry that intelligence agencies spied on the Nanoose Conversion Campaign because of its stand against nuclear weapons, some of the B.C. organization's members started having second thoughts about their involvement, even though the group conducted only peaceful rallies.

"There was a concern (among some) about whether the government could make their life difficult," says Nanoose Conversion Campaign organizer Ivan Bulic.

It is not only in Canada that official reaction to vocal public opposition is being questioned. The Italian government's inquiry into the handling of the demonstrations at the recent Genoa summit of G8 leaders conceded that police used excessive force and made serious errors in dealing with protesters.

One incident being probed by Genoa prosecutors is an early morning raid on a school used by demonstrators as their co-ordination centre. People were beaten with clubs as they slept and the school was trashed by officers. Sixty-two demonstrators were injured, and government officials have recommended firing the senior police officers involved.

Police in the U.S. are also using tactics similar to their Canadian counterparts, such as pre-emptive arrests, surveillance and the infiltration of groups.

Hundreds of activists were jailed last year in advance of protests against the Republican Party in Philadelphia and Washington. Most of the cases were later dismissed by the courts since police could offer no valid reasons for the arrests.

Last year, undercover officers posing as construction workers infiltrated a warehouse in Philadelphia where demonstration organizers were making puppets as part of their protests against the Republican Party. Seventy puppet-makers were charged with various offences, but again, the courts dismissed the counts. At the same time, police were monitoring the Internet activities of the puppet group.

The mass arrest of protesters, even if they aren't engaged in violence, has also become common. Last April, Washington police rounded up 600 demonstrators marching against poor conditions in U.S. prisons. In their sweeping arrests, officers also scooped up tourists watching the rally from the sidelines.

Such actions, however, haven't gone unchallenged. Several lawsuits against police forces have been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild.

In Canada, aside from comments by civil rights experts and opposition politicians, there has been little outrage among the public or lawmakers.

In part this can be traced to media coverage that emphasizes the actions of a small number of violent protesters while neglecting largely peaceful events, says Allison North, a Canadian Federation of Students official and rally organizer. All protesters are branded as troublemakers, she says.

Mr. Duff, the student organizer, notes the scope of the damage at the Quebec City summit was never put into perspective by the media and the public was left with the notion protesters caused widespread destruction. "The stuff that happened in Quebec City was nothing in comparison to a regular St-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec. There they have bonfires in the street whenever they can, and far more property gets destroyed."

He questions whether the public can be complacent about police and government activities in dealing with dissent. Surveillance may now be aimed at people protesting globalization, but such methods can, and will, be used to manage other protests, whether it be against education cuts or reductions in health care budgets, he predicts.

Some are concerned that has already happened. In April the RCMP issued a public apology to the townspeople of Saint-Sauveur, N.B., admitting the force overreacted when it sent a riot squad to handle a group of parents and children protesting the closure of a school in May 1997. Several people were attacked and bitten by police dogs, while others were injured after being hit by tear gas canisters or roughed up by officers. Dozens were arrested in Saint-Sauveur and the nearby town of Saint-Simon, but none was informed of their legal rights. All charges were later dropped.

The APEC report condemned the fact several women protesters were forced to remove their clothes after being arrested. But it wasn't an isolated event. Earlier this year eight female students at Trent University in Peterborough were arrested, stripped and searched by police. Their alleged crime was to protest the closing of the university's downtown college.

Such extreme reactions tend to galvanize people, says Mr. Duff. Those who peacefully demonstrate, only to be tear-gassed or arrested, tend to emerge as more committed protesters, he says.

Const. Amyot says the RCMP's new Public Order Program will ensure the safety of delegates, demonstrators and police at future summits.

Mr. Pue believes the security for major gatherings should be decided through public debate and parliamentary scrutiny, instead of letting police to make up rules as they go along.

For instance, there are no Canadian laws to allow for the installation of a perimeter fence limiting the movement of protesters at international meetings, Mr. Pue notes. Yet a large fence was built for Quebec City and such barriers will likely be fixtures at coming events. "That's not the kind of discretion that should be left to police officers in secret."

- - -

Cracking Down on Protesters

Today the Citizen begins a major series on what some are calling "the criminalization of dissent." In the days ahead:

- Activists on Vancouver Island were surprised to learn the police knew their tactics in advance.

- Authorities added another line to Green Party leader Joan Russow's resume: threat to national security.

- Organize a protest today and you can expect a Mountie to knock on your door.

- The APEC affair showed the RCMP is willing to go undercover to dig up dirt.

-- Martin Thompson (, August 18, 2001

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