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CANADA: Buck-Passing Marks Postmortem of G20 Chaos

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Dec 22 2010 (IPS) - Six months after the chaos surrounding security and policing at June’s G20 leaders’ summit in Toronto, there is little agreement about where the buck should stop.

More than 1,000 people were arrested and temporarily detained. Close to 100 are facing criminal charges, and fewer than 10 remain in jail.

An estimated 20,000 officers from police forces across Canada faced off with perhaps 25,000 labour-led peaceful marchers on Jun. 26. The latter were carrying signs critical of the actions of the world leaders meeting in Toronto and representing different perspectives.

On Tuesday, the first Toronto police officer was charged with assaulting a protester following the march.

The prominent Toronto Star newspaper is now echoing calls by leading human rights groups like Amnesty International for a public inquiry. But the Conservative government in Ottawa has been steadfast in opposing any investigation since the summer.

Former Toronto Mayor John Swell, the author of two books on policing, says the current closed-door investigations will fail to dispel the uncertainty surrounding decisions made by the Integrated Security Unit (ISU), which coordinated federal, provincial and municipal officers. He notes that these inquiries lack the power to subpoena key players and cross-examine them under oath.

“We obviously have great troubles trying to find what’s happened on the police side of things,” he told IPS. “It looks as though the police were just let loose – nobody was in control of them. It would be nice to talk to some of the police supervisors, [to ask] do you know what [your officers] were doing?”

Critics say the Toronto police took take advantage of obscure provincial legislation to suspend civil liberties in the city during the summit.

“Ordinary citizens were shocked to discover that police had the power to detain and search even people who did not try to breach the fence or who declined to produce ID and tried to walk away,” said Andre Marin, the Ontario government ombudsman, or watchdog, in a recent report.

He told reporters that the Ontario provincial government quietly passed an order in council which gave Toronto police greater latitude to arrest, search and detain people under an obscure 71-year-old wartime Public Works Protection Act during the last weekend of June.

However, these extraordinary measures to “protect public works” were limited legally to the small fenced-off area in downtown Toronto where the world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama, were meeting.

Marin described as “opportunistic and inappropriate” the decision by the Toronto police to exercise these powers beyond the security perimetre in the city’s downtown area.

Meanwhile, Toronto Police Chief William Blair has refused to resign in the face of calls from a few columnists. He has defended his position not to cooperate with Marin’s investigation in interviews with reporters.

“I’m responsible for the conduct and discipline of police officers and I’m doing my job. My job is to ensure we conduct appropriate investigations, that we cooperate with all of those properly constituted independent bodies that are tasked with conducting their investigations,” Blair said.

“I think it can be demonstrated that I am willing to hold my people accountable where there’s evidence of misconduct,” he added.

Don Davies, a New Democratic member of Parliament, says that while Blair “committed errors”, he should not be “the fall guy” for what happened at the G20 summit.

“The federal government is trying to escape any responsibility,” he told IPS. “They were responsible for the event. They paid for the [$1 billion security]. So they should accept responsibility.”

At recent parliamentary hearings, it was difficult to determine clear chains of command and levels of accountability for G20 security in the ISU, he told IPS. Davies and fellow MPs lacked subpoena power to force officials to testify under oath.

“The federal government is saying, ‘We didn’t make any decision, it was the Toronto police’. And the Toronto police is saying, ‘We weren’t making any decisions, it was the Integrated Security Unit’. And the ISU is saying, ‘It wasn’t us. It was the minister [of public safety]’. The minister is saying, ‘We were taking advice from the RCMP’. So it is a circular application.”

One University of Windsor criminologist doubts that even a public inquiry would be allowed to explore the Toronto police’s decision to focus on the peaceful protesters rather than confront the Black Bloc vandals on the G20 weekend.

Professor John Deukmedjian predicts that national security considerations will trump any effort to examine the role of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service or other government security agencies in the infiltration of the groups intent on committing vandalism downtown during the G20.

“We know that counterintelligence tactics are central to infiltrating groups and we know various groups were infiltrated,” he told IPS. “A good question then becomes to what if any extent did agents promote certain forms of illegal activity and for what ends – maintain a cover, to raise levels of fear among police or public?”

University of Toronto professor Nelson Wiseman, who teaches Canadian government and politics, doubts that any government, federal or provincial, will respond favourably to calls for a public inquiry.

“It would cost many millions of dollars because there are so many parties [in Canada] that could claim to be a party to this,” he told IPS. “The result of a public inquiry, especially in this matter, would probably take three years to get the report. Maybe two, at best.”

By that time, at least three more G20 summits will have taken place, he said, adding, “I am not sure much more will come out [from a lengthy public inquiry].”

Deukmedjian, who has advised the RCMP in the past, contends there has been a similar security ramp-up for all of the G20 summits. He suggests they started before 9/11 and are roughly parallel with the growth in globalisation and marketisation of the world economies of the last few decades.

Deukmedjian describes the policing strategy in Toronto and other host cities as military in approach, with the emphasis on “containing, pre-empting, disrupting, infiltrating and in extreme cases exterminating an enemy.”

“The G20 reflects to me a shift away from a more disciplined approach to demonstrations decades ago, where the police were there to basically facilitate a protest or march,” he said.

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