Canada

BLIGHTED IMAGE

JENNIFER HUNTER December 21 1998
Canada

BLIGHTED IMAGE

JENNIFER HUNTER December 21 1998

BLIGHTED IMAGE

Canada

JENNIFER HUNTER

It is hard to imagine Jean Chrétien in the role of campus activist. But as a student at Laval University in Quebec City in the 1950s, he was a determined foe of the paternalistic government of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis. On one occasion, Chrétien and about 60 of his Laval colleagues headed to the national assembly, but they were stopped outside by the police. “There were about two policemen per student,” he wrote in his memoirs, Straight From the Heart. Most marchers “were too scared to do anything and the protest was a big flop.” Chrétien’s next effort created a bigger stir, when he organized a march of 1,000 Laval students who pelted the assembly building with eggs and tomatoes. The onetime student activist said he was working towards “democracy in Quebec”—a notion that becomes increasingly ironic in light of Chretien’s own recent problems with youthful radicals, including last week’s violent tussle between police and protesters outside a Vancouver hotel where the Prime Minister was giving a speech.

Trouble from political dissenters seems to dog Chrétien whenever he sets foot in Vancouver. Last week, demonstrators protesting

during his speech were clubbed by Vancouver riot police and at least four ended up in hospital, treated for cuts and bruises. The bloody contretremps echoed the Prime Minister’s last visit to the West Coast city, just over a year ago. Then, during the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit at the University of British Columbia, the RCMP used pepper spray to quell students, many of them protesting against the human rights abuses of since-deposed Indonesian strongman Suharto. That unfortunate melée—which has become known as Spraypec—and the suggestion that Chretien’s office was involved in clamping down on anti-APEC dissent, has blighted the Prime Minister’s image as an honest politician who speaks from the heart. And the APEC fiasco appears to have left its mark on public opinion. A Gallup poll conducted early this month showed Chrétien’s disapproval rating increased nationally to 40 per cent from 33 per cent.

In Vancouver last week, Chrétien, speaking at a Liberal fund-raising dinner in Vancouver at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, tried to express solidarity with the 650 protesters outside on Burrard Street—some of them the same students who had been pepper-sprayed a year ago.

“Sometimes democracy is noisy and it’s messy,” he told the audience at the $400-a-plate dinner. But the protesters “have the right to express their views—I believe in it very strongly,” he added, also alluding to his own days as a student fighting Duplessis. The message of empathy probably would have been lost on the demonstrators— students, union members and social activists who braved the rain and cold to picket against poverty, APEC, and free trade. Some carried signs that read: “Jean Chrétien: Canada’s (soon to be Ex) dictator” or “Chrétien wanted for crimes against democracy.” By 6 p.m., the number of protesters had swelled, spilling onto the downtown thoroughfare, and police closed off streets in the area.

Around 7:20 p.m., moments before Chrétien began his

The APEC fiasco is beginning to leave its mark on public opinion

RCMP officers subduing APEC protesters with pepper spray; Vancouver police battling demonstrators outside the Hyatt Regency (above left): ironic

speech to the 1,000 people at the dinner, about 20 protesters rushed towards the line of bicycle patrol officers protecting the main entrance of the hotel. The riot squad of 54 police—augmenting another 115 Vancouver officers on duty—then emerged from the hotel, thumping their clubs loudly on clear plastic shields. They advanced towards the protesters and began to beat back the crowd. Some demonstrators, like 27-year-old Bryce Gilroy-Scott, required stitches. Further south, an RCMP crowd control squad of 60 officers waited, including Staff Sgt. Hugh Stewart—now well-known from TV clips showing him pepperspraying APEC protesters. But the RCMP remained on the sidelines while Vancouver police wielded their batons and arrested eight men and one woman for unlawful assembly. The nine were let go, without being charged, around 2 a.m. the next morning.

The confrontation was over in a few minutes, and affected only a small number of people. Most protesters did not even see the violence and seated themselves peacefully on rain-soaked Burrard Street. However, police later claimed

they had no option but to use force. “People were grabbing at [police] shields and visors,” said Const. Anne Drennan. “We were dealing with physical confrontation. It wasn’t just a crowd yelling and screaming.” And the clubs were used, she argued, because “for a very brief period we were in danger of losing control.”

Still, protesters claim there was no need for force. One participant, 59-year-old retired social worker Irene Maclnnes, who had come to decry the plight of the homeless, said she was looking for a friend when a policeman hit her with his shield. “I’m totally in shock,” she said the next day. “I grew up in England where if you are in trouble you go to the police. But I find what the police did here was really scary.” When she was hit, Maclnnes flew through the air, landing on her back. She says she suffered a cracked tailbone and has launched a complaint against the police. Garth Mullins, a 27-year-old freelance researcher and one of the organizers of the demonstration, says “there was an incredible police overreaction.” Mullins is a member of Democracy Street, a loosely linked group of protesters, many of whom were pepper-sprayed during APEC. “It is clear,” he concludes, “that there is something about the Liberal government and the issue of policing that isn’t very savoury.” The whole question of the relationship between the police—specifically the RCMP—and the Chrétien government during the APEC summit is the main focus of the off-again, on-again APEC inquiry in Vancouver. But those proceedings are now mired in controversy and confusion—with the future of the inquiry E under a cloud. “It’s become a zoo,” I says RCMP lawyer George MaclnI tosh. The latest stumbling block

0 occurred earlier this month, when £ the chairman of the three-member

1 panel, Gerald Morin, resigned. At m the time of his resignation, Morin I was under scrutiny by the Federal I Court of Canada, facing an allegao tion of bias because of prejudicial ^ comments he supposedly made

about police actions at APEC within earshot of an RCMP constable. But Morin insists he did not resign because of that claim.

Instead, he asserts that Shirley Heafey, chairwoman of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission—and the woman who appointed him to the inquiry—improperly interfered in his work. Heafey dismisses Morin’s complaints, and vows the inquiry will carry on without him. “I’m not sure how yet, but I intend to continue,” she said. Lawyers for the students and the RCMP, meanwhile, say they want to examine the correspondence between Heafey and Morin to see if there is any indication of bias on Heafey’s part. “If she tried to influence the outcome of panel decisions, we can’t go back to the commission with her still in place,” says Aymen Nader, one of the lawyers for the student complainants. Nader, who also witnessed last week’s protest in Vancouver, says his clients are disappointed they couldn’t “demonstrate peacefully.” They will find this second clash with police, he believes, even harder to forgive and forget. □