Dissent & democracy

In early June 2010, a few weeks before Toronto hosted the G-20, Premier Dalton McGuinty and his cabinet very quietly passed Regulation 233/10 to augment the little-known and almost never used Public Works Protection Act. Why? Because authorities anticipated large numbers of activists to descend on Toronto during the summit.

Reg 233/10 designated a significant part of downtown Toronto a “public work” and gave police the power to stop anyone within five metres of the “public work.” Anyone so stopped was required to then provide their name, address, identification and a reason for being there or risk detention and arrest. Police were also given the authority to conduct warrantless searches of people and vehicles.

Outrageous as that was, it didn’t take the police long to use their new powers well beyond what was permitted; stopping and interrogating people much farther than five metres away from the perimeter.

More than 20,000 law enforcement officers were called into service. A special (and large) detention centre was set up just east of downtown Toronto, in anticipation of mass arrests. A three-metre tall, six-kilometre long steel fence was installed to keep all but the most privileged outside a significant swath of the city’s core.

Taking it to the streets

I was one of the 10,000 or so people in the streets on June 26 and 27. We were loud; we were angry; we were aggressive. There was property damage. I am sure some people were frightened or upset by what they saw happening.

Notably, we did not blow airhorns all night long in residential areas. We did not defecate on people’s lawns. We did not hurl racist, homophobic or misogynist epithets. We did not assault people who did not agree with us. While some demonstrators slept in public parks, we erected neither fuel dumps nor bouncy castles. We left Toronto, most of us taking our garbage with us, once the summit ended.

The concerns we took to the streets were real; not fabricated to fit a bogus agenda. We did not always agree on everything – in particular, there was disagreement with and about some of the black bloc’s proposed tactics – but we were working with a homegrown agenda, not one imported from south of the border. We did not wave Confederate, swastika or U.S. flags. We had no GoFundMe account or foreign interests providing financial support.

There were moments when I was scared – of the police, not the demonstrators. I watched them grab and rough up activists near me. I saw them kettle marchers. I tried (and largely failed) not to be intimidated as they rushed at us in wide lines one after the other, riot gear hiding their faces and making them look like some kind of intergalactic army, banging their batons loudly on their shields.

People were injured, some seriously, by police. Others were wrongfully arrested and held in custody for much too long.

Ultimately, an investigation by the Ontario Ombudsman found that Regulation 233/10 was “likely unconstitutional,” and its effect was “to infringe on freedom of expression in ways that do not seem justifiable in a free and democratic society.”

The report also called the government to task for the secrecy surrounding  the passage of Reg 233/10: “[P]assage of the regulation should have been aggressively publicized, not disclosed only through obscure official information channels.”

Twelve years later

Fast forward to Ottawa, January 2022. The city’s streets have been overrun by the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” and the police appear to be frozen — not by the cold temperatures, but by indecision. Doug Ford has not stepped in with a quick and secret legislative manoeuvre to protect the people of Ottawa from the demonstrators. No fences have been built to keep trucks out of the way. The police force has not filled the streets with thousands of officers; in fact, according to a police announcement on the weekend, a mere 150 officers were deployed to the demonstration area. No special detention facility has been created, and almost no arrests were made in the first 10 days of the convoy.

Dissent is an important part of a true democracy, even when it is loud and messy; even when people are saying things we don’t agree with or when they use tactics we find objectionable.

When we took to the streets to speak out about globalization, the climate crisis and poverty in Toronto in 2010, to give just one example, we did so because the facts supported our concerns. That is very different from what is happening in Ottawa right now.

Facts are few and far between in the anti-public health protocol rhetoric being bellowed in the streets of Centretown, and in between those sparse facts there’s been a lot of space for hate and disinformation.

There are valid questions about the real agenda of those behind the disruptions of the past 10 days. As Adam King wrote recently:

“The extent to which the convoy is actually about trucking or truckers is debatable. The network of far-right wealthy organizers and donors backing the convoy certainly calls claims of authentic connection to working-class truckers into question.”

Whose interests have been at the heart of what’s going in in Ottawa? Not those of racialized truckers, according to long-haul trucker Arshdeep Singh Kang:

“I don’t believe in the issues they are raising . . . . I can’t see any of my people in the videos of the convoy.”

What Ontario and Toronto did during the G-20 was shameful and must never happen again, but the slowness and lack of meaningful state response to the illegal actions of those in Ottawa right now is also shameful, and needs to be seen for what it is.

Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor Pam Palmeter puts it this way:

“I have no doubt that this is pure racism. Are people allowed to threaten the prime minister? . . . I guarantee you that if that was an Indigenous person or a Black person, they’d be sitting in jail.”

Manitoba’s Joan Jack, also an Indigenous lawyer and activist, had this to say:

“If our rights were as valuable – particularly as Indigenous women – to this government, this wouldn’t even be happening. . . they would’ve called in the army on us.”

Black Lives Matter activist Elsa Kaka called the state response

“a tolerance for ignorance. . . If politicians fail to oppose it, they’re being complacent, and that is very dangerous, but it also encourages racist rhetoric.”

It’s time for what’s happening in Ottawa, and now in other urban centres across the country, to be decisively shut down and for those responsible for the harm they have caused to be held accountable.

Dissent in a civil society can be unruly and uncomfortable, but it should never be driven by lies. ignorance or hate.

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