Just how far should police go to protect dictators?

Editorial from the Vancouver Sun, September 10, 1998

by Andrew Irvine

Did police officers use excessive force while trying to control student protesters at last year’s APEC conference in Vancouver? Were the free speech rights of demonstrators inappropriately compromised? Was the RCMP influenced by political directives, rather than by security concerns, when carrying out its mandate to protect conference delegates?

When Public Complaint Commission hearings begin on Monday, September 14, into events surrounding the November 1997 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association will be there to try to obtain answers to all three of these questions. Given the lack of legal counsel for most other complainants, it will be uphill work.

In explaining why the government was unwilling to fund lawyers for student protesters, even though it is doing the same for government witnesses and members of the RCMP, Solicitor General Andy Scott noted that

RCMP members will be represented by government-provided counsel because these members may be subject to disciplinary measures as a result of the proceedings; complainants do not face similar potential consequences.

This is true, as far as it goes. Individual complainants will not need to have their rights protected by counsel in the same way that individual officers will. So if the only reason for holding these hearings is to determine whether individual officers used excessive force while arresting and detaining protesters, there will be little need for additional counsel. But if the public is ever to discover the real reasons that officers felt obliged to restrict the free speech rights of protesters, legal counsel will be needed to question RCMP and government witnesses.

This is why it is unfortunate that the government failed to provide counsel for all complainants. It is also why the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, represented by our counsel from the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, will be working hard to question all witnesses during the full six weeks of these hearings.

Not only does it appear that some peaceful protesters had their signs forcibly removed, others allege that they were arrested simply for refusing to take down their paper and cloth signs prior to the outbreak of violence. Still others report that they were intimidated by the police into signing guarantees that they would give up their free speech rights for the duration of the APEC conference.

The fact that these events may have taken place on a Canadian university campus makes it all the worse. Universities have long been recognized as centres of free speech, relying as they do on the open exchange of ideas for the advancement of knowledge.

Even more importantly, free speech and freedom of peaceful assembly both lie at the heart of what it means to live in a democracy. Without them, citizens are no longer able to exercise their sovereignty over government.

Yet last November we saw how easy it is for police to restrict these fundamental freedoms. And if we are ever to discover why, and to what degree, these restrictions were enforced, government and police witnesses will need to be vigorously and expertly cross-examined, something individual complainants are not trained to do. When it was approached to fund counsel for protesters and for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the government was being asked, in effect, to provide funding which would be used to investigate its own role in this affair. Perhaps it is not surprising that it denied these requests.

If Canadians rights to free speech and peaceful assembly are to be anything more than mere platitudes, they have to be the kinds of rights which cannot be overridden at the whim of either individual police officers or our political leaders. 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.”

During the APEC conference, the main object of protest was Indonesia’s then president, General Suharto. It is thus ironic that when student protests took place several months later in Indonesia—a country not noted for its strong human rights record—President Suharto was forced to resign. When similar protests took place here in Vancouver last November, students were pepper-sprayed and arrested. To his discredit, the Prime Minister then publicly and condescendingly joked about the heavy-handedness of the police.

As the current hearings unfold it will not only be crucial to discover which individual officers were responsible for which actions. It will be even more important for all Canadians to discover whether such actions are defensible in a free and open democracy and, if not, whether they resulted from political directives.

Canadians across the country need to be assured that the RCMP cannot be used capriciously for partisan purposes. We need to know that Canada’s chief law enforcement agency is not arbitrarily restricting the most fundamental rights of Canadian citizens in order for politicians to ingratiate themselves with visiting dictators. Democracy itself is in peril whenever the police are used, not to protect citizens’ rights, but to violate those right in order to further political objectives.

If it is discovered that politicians, or civil servants acting on their behalf, influenced or attempted to influence police policy for political ends, they must be held accountable. Ministers have resigned, and governments have fallen, for less.