G20: On the Pavement Thinking About the Government

Welcome to Neverland …

… at Queen & Peter St, on June 26, 2010
(slide show at end of article)

“What do you mean,” asked the policeman.

The Bicycle cop was part of a line of policemen barring the way south from Queen Street at Peter. This one had stopped a man from going south down the street to where his home was, according to the man. At the next intersection there was a line of riot police, shields
up, batons on shoulders. Clearly the man wasn’t going to get beyond them. The
Bicycle cop (who, as a group behaved very well) had asked the man for ID. The
man didn’t have any and was turned away. So, I asked the policeman, in what I
hoped was a friendly tone, “Just out of curiosity, but by what authority are
you preventing people from walking down this street?”

He asked me what I meant and I said, “Well, I’m not trying to be belligerent, but what law allows you to do this?” It was clear he was having trouble with the question. “The criminal code,’ I prompted. “Yes,” he said quickly, “the Criminal Code.”

“Oh,” I said, “which section?”

He looked at me coldly and said, “It’s not my job to educate you on the Criminal Code, sir.” The “sir” had a finality to it and he turned away.

“That went well,” I said to my wife as we continued our walk.

“No it didn’t,” she said.

It was an unfair question. I knew there was nothing in the Criminal Code that permitted the police to do what they were doing. They have the authority to arrest people for disturbing the peace, but that is not a Criminal Code offence. The crowd on Queens Street at 4 pm on Saturday afternoon the weekend of the G20 were anything but disturbing the
police.

A family of vandals at the G20

But my conversation with the policeman was only one incident of many I saw personally and later on citizens’ videos on You Tube in which police were exercising authority they didn’t really have. Judging by what this Bicycle cop said, most of them didn’t even know they didn’t have
it.

Take the mysterious five meter law passed a month or so before the G20 weekend by the McGuinty government. It allowed police to asked for identification and to perform searches of anyone inside the 10 foot fence surrounding the secures zone downtown. It was a law that suspended for a limited time period the constitutional right of citizens to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure. But I saw searches of peoples belongings done a long way from The Fence. Some people—give them five metres and they’ll take a kilometre or two or three.

Then there are the persistent questions (being asked on the Internet, but not in the media who have pretty much come down on Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair’s side of the story) about the seemingly arbitrary detainments and mass arrests, and riot police breaking up  peaceful assemblies—both offences against Charter rights. I did a lot of walking around on Saturday and Sunday, taking pictures, talking to demonstrators and police and the only time I saw the peace being breached was when riot police started pushing around groups of citizens.

And this went on even after the leaders of the G20 had left for home.

Until about 5 pm on Saturday, the 20,000 police troops in Toronto (2 cops for every demonstrator for heaven’s sake) handled themselves pretty well. The Bicycle patrols directed protest marches, they handled crowds on Queen Street. Even the black-clad, helmeted, heavily armed riot police adopted the wise and successful strategy of waiting out the crowds.

Sure there was property damage on Yonge Street and three police cars were set on fire, but, as the Montreal Gazette pointed out in an editorial the next day, that paled in comparison to the damage sometimes caused after a good old hockey game at the Coliseum. So, says the Gazette to the people in Toronto, chill out.

But what about the human damage? Do burning police cars and smashed windows justify the presence of 20,000 troops in a Canadian city? Do they justify the cracked heads of demonstrators and the largest mass arrest in Canadian history? Do they justify the passage of laws that were not seen much less understood by the public and even the police? Did the police on the line (and in command) even know what they could and could not do to citizens during an event like the G20? Have governments allowed police too much
latitude—exactly what democratic oversight should there be on police during such event?

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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