Submission to Toronto City Council Committee On Transportation and Planning

Re: Request To Enact City Of Toronto By-Law With Respect To Demonstrations

From the Ottawa Witness Group

Purpose of this submission:

The Ottawa Witness Group is a citizen’s volunteer association whose purpose is to help protect the rights of citizens to demonstrate in public spaces. The Group grew out of experiences with policing of the G-20 demonstrations in Ottawa which saw undue force being used against peaceful marchers expressing political views.

Our purpose here is to address a proposal, as yet without detail or clear justifications, that would work against a reasonable balance between rights to free expression in public spaces and the use of coercion to protect other rights such as property. Dissent is fundamental to a free and democratic society and those who express dissent should not be subject to unnecessary co-ercive measures by the police.

Overview of our points of view:

We are strongly of the view that the police should see those who express political views in public spaces as fellow citizens, deserving of services, and as much a part of the community as any others.

The strength of our views stems from a contrary deportment of the police during the G-20 demonstrations here in Ottawa in mid-November 2001. At that time, peaceful marchers, led by clergy and other community leaders, were met almost from the beginning of their march, by tactical police in full riot gear, canine units and undue force. Subsequent hearings, led by former Member of Parliament and Ottawa Mayor Marion Dewar, heard 70 submissions from citizens who related that they were treated without regard to the safety and security of their persons or their rights to freedom of expression or freedom of assembly  during these marches.

The Report of the Citizens Panel on Policing and Community is attached for the information of members of the Committee.

The Witness Group, which grew out of recommendations of this Panel, has since had nearly a year of auditing police treatment of demonstrators. Our observation is that a number of improvements in the policing of major events has brought greater peace and mutual respect. This should not be surprising, given the experience with community policing, where the police are viewed as facilitators and regulators, rather than as antagonists.

As a result, we are very concerned by the proposals from the Police Services Board of Toronto for a new by-law specifically oriented to demonstrations. It is our view that the assumptions underlying the proposed by-law are that demonstrators represent a threat, rather than a democratic expression of views that is healthy for the community as a whole. Such assumptions are bound to lead to greater antagonism between the community and the police, which does not serve the interests of either party.

In contrast, the model adopted by the Ottawa Police Service, as expressed in its Agenda for Excellence, has improved the relationships between police, demonstrators and the community. It should be noted that the RCMP has subscribed to the same philosophy, perhaps because of lessons learned as the result of the APEC demonstrations and the Enquiry that followed under Judge Hughes. (His Report is found on the web site for the RCMP Complaints Commission.)

We look forward to further community consultations concerning the Agenda for Excellence, which we believe is a useful beginning toward a proper balance between the need to uphold secuerity of persons and property and the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

The Witness Group urges upon the Committee a review of various approaches taken to policing political demonstrations before adopting any by-law toward demonstrators. Experience in such communities as Ottawa could profitably be considered during such a review.

The Ottawa Experience:

The past eighteen months of policing of demonstrations has been a study in contrasts. In November 2001 during the G-20 summit, tactical and canine units formed the front line in response to demonstrators who were led by clergy and community leaders. This response so outraged the clergy that they immediately questioned the value of years of work to bring about greater understanding between police and the community. Instead of the two being part of the whole, they were glaringly separated by a gulf of violence from police and distrust by citizens involved in making public representations of their points of view.

The Ottawa Police Services Board declined to hold public hearings to learn lessons from this experience. Consequently, clergy and activists invited a number of prominent citizens of the city to hold public hearings so that the community could understand what had happened during the G-20 summit.

During the hearings, ordinary citizens recounted their shock at how aggressive the tactical and canine units had been at an early stage in what had been billed as a non-violent demonstration. One grandmother reported that she had been hit in the face by a tactical unit person when she had sought to speak peacefully with him.

The hearings were attended in full by representatives of the Ottawa Police Service. The Citizens Panel believed that their presence played an important role in bringing to the attention of the Police Service the problems that had occurred during the G-20 demonstrations.

By April of 2002, the Police Service had developed its own response to the experience with the G-20, ahead of the Panel Report. Called Agenda for Excellence, in it the Service proposed that their policy should be one of “soft tact”, in which police would be dressed in ordinary uniforms for the most part, and would accompany demonstrators, enter into dialogue with them, and respect their rights to free expression.

The Agenda also reflected the policy of the Solicitor General of the Province of Ontario in having tactical and canine units perform back-up and not initial front-line service.

A major demonstration was organized for late June of 2002 to mark the presence in the Capital of the heads of G-8 governments. This was also the first test for the changed approach to policing set out in the Agenda.

Key Elements in Policing

A main feature of the Agenda  was the formation of a front-line group from both the Ottawa Police Service and the RCMP later known as the “Major Events Liaison Team” or MELT. Its role is to ensure good communication with the demonstrators, to resolve problems with police forces along the march route, and to reduce tensions.

While the Witness Group expressed some concerns over the policing of anti-G-8 demonstrations (including lack of identification of officers, constant videotaping and overuse of pepper spray in one incident), the policing of these demonstrations marked an improvement from that of November 2001.

The Witness Group has reported that, for the most part, this strategy has been an important factor in what we might term “successful demonstrations” over the past several months as Ottawa has seen numerous demonstrations against the war in Iraq. For the most part, demonstrators have been able to express themselves. Property has not been damaged. No police have been injured during any demonstrations in the past year, it should be noted.

A key element in the approach has been the continuity in the presence of members of MELT. There has been an improvement in communications between demonstrators and MELT. Some issues over the past year have arisen which continue to be difficult to resolve, such as the use of pepper spray during a home occupation that occurred during the anti-G-8 protests, and arrests in the most recent demonstrations. For the most part, these police actions have occurred outside the MELT ambit.

Lessons from the Ottawa Experience

In comparison with the G-20 policing, subsequent approaches by the Ottawa Police Service, the RCMP and supplementary police services called in to help, have resulted in the possibility of dialogue between those in the community who wish to express themselves through demonstrations, and the police service.

These demonstrations have not always been predictable, in following prescribed routes, or in not engaging in civil disobedience. Citizens have been passionate at times in their demonstrations, and have at times been disruptive of traffic or even business, without violence. There have been instances of civil disobedience.

Concerns with the proposed by-law
We have set out in some detail the Ottawa model because of contrasts we perceive in the proposal from the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB). We hasten to note that only generalities are set forth in the proposal, but those give us cause for concern in principle.

While we were encouraged by the initial tone of the TPSB document, which speaks of dialogue and communication between police and organizers of demonstrations, later reference to “anti-establishment” groups gives rise to concern that distinctions are being drawn to suggest that such views should automatically be worrisome to the authorities, particularly to the police.

In our view, a police service should not treat groups of citizens differently on the basis of how they are perceived to support the prevailing power or government of the day. Indeed, it is dangerous to democracy to suggest that those who may dissent are automatically to be singled out for special treatment ­ in this case, that of extra control. If anything, our democracy should go out of its way to ensure the safety of those who dissent. Protection of dissenters should serve as an example to all citizens of how views and expressions are valued.

The TPSB document goes from this reference to dissent to suggestions of possible mayhem and violence. In our view, current provincial policy is sufficient to deal with such eventualities: keep the tactical and canine units and other supplementary forces out of sight and in reserve. The reason? Not just to have the force in case of need, but to avoid provocation and a self-fulfilling assumption of violence.

The document goes on to discuss the right to free assembly, and then to detail the myriad means of preventing disorder and violence, of crowd control, and of dispersion of “illegal assemblies”. In our view, entirely too little attention is given to the kind of problem resolution and good communication that is characteristic of the MELT model in use here in Ottawa. Far too much attention is given to fearful possibilities requiring force.

The use of force as a last alternative, because of the harm it may cause, is not just a matter of lip service. It should be integral to the strategic approach to policing demonstrations. Such would be consistent with community policing, where the welfare of the community as a whole is sought, where understanding of the community is developed by the community police service, and problems are resolved ­ before force is applied. This is the foundation for mutual trust, which is essential to the communication that the TPSB document praises, but which would be destroyed by its very proposals.

While the legal rights of demonstrators are noted, there is no mechanism whatever for protecting those rights. The paramountcy of the Public Safety Unit, definitions of infringement on the rights of property owners, the need for calling in the Mounted Unit, and other instruments of coercion occupy centre stage. Unfortunately, the image projected is one of siege, where all the powers needed to defeat an enemy of law and order are to be brought to bear.

This is a most unfortunate philosophy. We do not dispute the need for law and order, nor for the application of force should the need be clear. What we do lament is the apparent assumption that dissenting demonstrations are by definition peopled by enemies of the peace, and that special powers must be brought to bear to control them.

In our view, such an assumption may well encourage alienation from the police forces: if they automatically treat persons with dissenting views as enemies of the peace to be coerced, the tensions that result will do nothing either for rights of expression or for the cause of peace in our communities.

The balance of rights

The TPSB document properly notes potentially conflicting rights ­ those of free expression and security of property in the event of demonstrations. Unfortunately, the document gives no consideration to the appropriate balance between these rights.

We would strongly urge the Planning and Transportation Committee to question how that balance is to be struck. We would ask the following questions:

City of Toronto as a model

The Witness Group has been moved to comment on the Toronto Police Services Board proposal not only because of the issues of public policy that it raises, but also because of the “ripple effect” that it might have for other cities such as the National Capital.

We believe that Toronto, as the country’s largest city, one with a reputation for accommodating peoples of many ethnic, religious and political origins, for valuing civility and livability in its spaces and its relationships with its citizens, serves as an example for this country and beyond. Some of the values that are touched on in the TPSB document should resonate with the City and inform the approach to policing to a much greater extent. The liberality and tolerance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms can and should be translated into practical strategies and actions. Given what we understand of the bylaw, we would be surprised if it survived a Charter challenge.

An essential force in realizing these goals is community policing. It is one which treats the citizen with respect, to be served and protected. To suppose an opposition between citizen and police would run counter to such policing. It invites the alienation that makes the “control” and the communication valued by the TPSB document absolutely elusive.

Should the City of Toronto adopt such an approach, posited on the dissenter as the potential violator of the peace, we are most concerned that other police forces would be influenced to consider it as well.

The progress toward mutual understanding, albeit with tensions and conflicts, that has been seen here in Ottawa between police and demonstrators would be jeopardized. The culture that takes time to take root within a police service, that is expressed in the Agenda for Excellence, could well be elbowed from the stage even before the first act is over.

Concluding thoughts

This matter is, of course, one for the citizens and the Committee of the City of Toronto to decide. In making suggestions, we are seeking to be helpful to the discussion which only you can have and decide.

We hope that the Committee would not only seek answers to some or all of the questions suggested above, but pursue broader issues such as

We hope that this submissions will indeed be helpful, and wish the Committee every success in dealing with these important issues for our democracy.

Paul Durber and Aileen Leo
On behalf of the Ottawa Witness Group


Report of the Citizens Panel on Policing and the Community (May 2002)