Ottawa Witness Group
Witness Group Report

Demonstration outside Immigration Minister’s Office during the evening of Thursday, 29 May 2003

Ottawa, June 11, 2003

Three members of the Ottawa Witness Group observed events during the last part of a demonstration in support of Algerian refugees who were said to be sitting in the offices of the Minister of Immigration, at 365 Laurier Street West in Ottawa. We did not observe conditions in the building itself, except for the foyer, since we were denied entrance.

We observed fewer than 100 demonstrators, mostly on Laurier Street, but also positioned at various exits to the two-tower complex at different times between our arrival about 10:15 p.m. and the end of the demonstration an hour and a half later. Demonstrators mostly marched around the front entrance on 365 Laurier West and chanted in English and French in support of the refugees.

During the demonstration, we noted the presence of between 20 and 30 officers dressed in tactical gear, a canine unit, with some dogs deployed within the building, and a number of Ottawa and RCMP police cars. We remarked on the absence of members of MELT, the Major Events Liaison Team. Two ambulances and police paramedics appeared toward 10:40 p.m.. We did not note any police videotaping. There was a videotaper accompanying the demonstrators. A demonstrator and one Witness had digital cameras.

Beginning at about 10:35 p.m., we observed an incident between demonstrators and three men who began taunting demonstrators. In addition to "political" taunts, they called on demonstrators to stop using their bullhorn as residents of a nearby apartment tower needed to sleep. One Witness went to the corner of Laurier and Kent to notify a police officer of the potential for conflict, and also phoned two members of the MELT group to leave messages about the demonstration and the need for their services.

At about 11:00 p.m., the three men and some demonstrators had an altercation, during which the police intervened to separate them. Those opposing the demonstration appeared to complain about infractions to the noise by-law, and also opposed being photographed by a demonstrator. Witnesses noted that at about 10:55 p.m., demonstrators ceased using the bullhorn, and chanted less loudly. The police succeeded in separating the two parties and in sending the three men on their way up Kent Street.

At about the same time, Witnesses began checking on rumours from demonstrators that the refugees were about to be brought from the building. We noted an OC Transpo bus, with police car escorts positioning themselves in front of the north tower of the complex at 300 Slater Street. This proved to be a diversion and not the route for bringing refugees out however, as the police were using other exits.

During the operation to bring refugees out, a series of events took place. About 25 officers of the RCMP and Ottawa Police came out the Laurier Street doors, all in flack jackets and some evidently armed with tasers. They positioned themselves just east of the doors in the middle of the street near a group of demonstrators who were seeking to block the entrance to a parking area to the complex. They ordered demonstrators in various places to get off the street.

At about 11:10 p.m., Witnesses noted several police carrying a male ­ apparently one of the refugees ­ out of the front doors of 365 Laurier. Being held by arms and legs, he was face down and none of us could see his face. Some demonstrators said that he was bleeding from the head. They also reported that during cell phone conversations with the refugees inside the building, their contact in the Minister’s office said that the police had injured at least one refugee, one on the head.

Just afterward, between 11:10 p.m. and 11:16 p.m., there were a number of police interactions with demonstrators, who were chanting in solidarity with the refugees. Two women, whom Witnesses observed to be standing on the street immediately outside the front doors to 365 Laurier, were suddenly arrested, handcuffed and led away (a mother and daughter). Force was used on the younger woman, who was pushed face down on the pavement, and her arms were immediately forced behind her back and her wrists handcuffed. At one point, her prone body was lifted off the ground by pulling up on her handcuffed wrists, obviously causing considerable pain. Photos of this arrest were taken.

The group of about 20 tactic squad officers on the street grabbed one of the demonstrators, wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, twisted his head on the ground, put a fist to his Adam’s apple and dragged him to a police car. Police tasered him a number of times after he had been subdued. As they were taking him down, the demonstrator said that there was no need to use violence as he was not resisting, and said “you are breaking my arms….”  One of the Witnesses made note of the identification tags on the officers involved in this operation.

Another officer tasered a female demonstrator near two witnesses. She had been chanting slogans but was on the sidewalk across the street from the entrance to 365 Laurer. She reported the names of the officer involved to us.. One witness noted that he saw the officer press a taser gun onto the woman’s left breast and fire. A witness photographed the officer after this incident. [Note: After this report was written, it was determined that the officer who used the taser gun on a female demonstrator was an Ottawa Police Service officer. There was some initial confusion as the result of Ottawa Police tactical unit officers having shoulder badges which differed from the regular Ottawa Police Service officers present. A formal complaint has been made  with respect to this incident by the woman to the Professional Standards Section of the Ottawa Police Service.]

One Witness also interviewed refugees who had been inside the south tower on Laurier Street. They had set up an information table and had been present during the afternoon and evening. The Witness notes that “they told me that they had been refused food during the whole day, although they were allowed to use the washrooms.” The couple, who had two small children, were not arrested.

Witnesses reflected later that they did not observe any link between the noisy but generally peaceful behaviour of demonstrators, and the use of force by RCMP and Ottawa Police. Demonstrators observed the noise by-law after 11 p.m., and did not physically obstruct the police. The police, on the other hand, did not give any warning to those arrested to remove themselves.

Witnesses were very concerned that in the circumstances of a peaceful, if noisy, demonstration, violent measures such as the taser were used, along with arrests, instead of more conciliatory means, as had been employed to diffuse the altercation between demonstrators and opponents. The absence of MELT was regrettable, given these circumstances.

[Summarized from three individual Witness accounts, 7 June 2003]