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G20: Clearing the air
Why the opposition parties have made so little hay out of the G20 security mess during the election campaign.

Anyone living in downtown Toronto during last summer’s G20 summit — those who hadn’t the wit nor the resources to clear off to Georgian Bay, James Bay or Baffin Island — will tell you that for a weekend the city took on a decidedly sinister air.

I watched much of it on TV and from a balcony at Bathurst and Bloor as columns of smoke from burning cop cars rose straight up in the still air like those special effects in Battle: LA. But I also had my own experiences in the streets, during which I was routinely detained, questioned, and treated with bizarre degrees of suspicion. I watched the constabulary handle otherwise harmless university students dispersing from protests as though they were unruly mobs requiring violent engagement. (This while handfuls of the Black Bloc contingent were allowed to sow chaos elsewhere in the city unfettered.) None of it made any sense.

In the days following the G20, it didn’t take long for reaction to the entire episode to fall along both partisan and geographical battle lines. Polls indicated that 80 percent of Canadians supported the police in their actions. The only G20 issue for federal politicians that held any appeal was its cost. The opposition hammered away in the house (and now on the hustings) about the price of the fake lake and the largesse spread around Tony Clement’s Muskoka riding.

In neither the months following the G20, nor during the current campaign, has there been much explicit criticism of what has been described as the most egregious abrogation of human rights since the FLQ crisis and the subsequent implementation of the War Measures Act. It is also the subject of a multi-million dollar class action suit that will come before the courts sometime towards the end of 2012. (Two weeks ago, the Globe and Mail reported on a British court ruling that police had broken the law when they “kettled” thousands of people at a London protest in 2009, confinement tactics that were evidently borrowed by Toronto cops at the G20.)

Last week I wrote on a blog for (gulp) another publication that Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals would do well politically (win more seats, win more votes) if they made a campaign issue of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the security apparatus, and whatever directives it had from the prime minister’s office during the G20.

I pointed out that none of the opposition parties had come anywhere remotely close to forcing the issue. If the Liberals were to do so, I argued, it would reestablish them as the party of individual rights and freedoms — terrain now staked out by Stephen Harper on issues like the gun registry — and energize young voters who might otherwise sit this one out. The Tories might carp about the opposition getting into bed with “anarchists,” but honestly, did anyone really believe that anymore after the spate of recent findings on this issue?

Well, er, on reflection (an entire week’s worth) that was, how to put it, a bridge too far. Last Friday, I met with a senior official of the Liberal Party who told me in no uncertain terms that while he “sympathized” with my argument, the hard reality was that the issue had “absolutely zero traction.” It would put whoever stood up on the issue across the bow of the “bipartisan” law-and-order constituency. It was, in short, like failing to take the Iowa ethanol pledge in U.S. presidential primary politics, an electoral “third rail.” And apparently the Liberals haven’t been alone in this thinking. Jack Layton has hardly said a word on the issue either.

I’m left with the same feeling that must have occurred to New Yorkers when they awoke one day in 1975 to read that famed headline in the Daily News: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” (NB: President Ford apparently never said such explicitly.) Rather much of the rest of Canada detests Toronto. The reasons are obvious, I suppose. That said, the events of that June weekend almost a year ago point to exactly how this city can be brought low by the combination of envy, ignorance, and a militarized police force.

More egregiously than the summit’s extraordinary cost with little outcome, Torontonians’ rights to free assembly and passage were effectively nullified. The state vastly over-reached its constitutional powers, a fact that once upon a time would have resonated with conservatives. Simply being able to move around freely, or gather in protest, might not seem like much of a peg to some people nowadays but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Think of it this way: the right to free passage in all its forms, whether it’s moving goods and services without arbitrary restriction or getting to a meeting without having to pass muster at a checkpoint, is at the heart of exactly what Toronto wants to be: a tolerant global city. And ironically enough, the restrictions put in place in order to secure the city so it might host the world’s leaders are exactly the sort of restrictions that will thwart this city’s efforts to engage with the world in the long run.


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