CANADA

APEC hangover

Did the PMO ask for a police crackdown?

BRUCE WALLACE September 21 1998
CANADA

APEC hangover

Did the PMO ask for a police crackdown?

BRUCE WALLACE September 21 1998

APEC hangover

Did the PMO ask for a police crackdown?

CANADA

The University of British Columbia in suburban Vancouver is blessed with a beautiful campus. With its rich green grounds and Pacific Ocean waves lapping at its edges, it is no surprise that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien personally approved UBC as the site for last November’s summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation countries. In hindsight, he might wish he had sacrificed the nice photo-op backdrop for a more isolated location. University campuses also tend to be breeding grounds for political activism, and hundreds of UBC students used the occasion to express their anger at human rights abuses in some APEC countries. The pretty pictures of the back-slapping leaders are long-forgotten. Canadians now remember the APEC summit for its images of young protesters being blasted with pepper spray by RCMP officers, and signs urging democracy and free speech being torn down by Canadian police.

More than bad optics from the APEC summit now haunt Chrétien. Beginning this week in Vancouver, the RCMP Public Complaints Commission will examine allegations from several groups, including UBC students, that officers used excessive force to keep the 17 leaders safe. But the hearing is sure to go beyond examining RCMP conduct, and ask whether either Chrétien or his aides in the Prime Minister’s Office encouraged police to use extraordinary measures to keep any sign

of protest well away from the leaders. Documents leaked to the media last week included an RCMP memo stating, “The PM wants everyone removed.” And other documents suggest Chrétien and Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy went to great lengths to reassure one particular target—then-Indonesian dictator Suharto, who was deposed at home within six months of the Vancouver summit— that he would not see or hear any demonstrations in Canada.

Chrétien has acknowledged that, as host, he asked his staff to make sure the visitors had no security fears. But he denied he ever issued orders to tear down signs or divert demonstrators away from the meetings. “I don’t have to explain anything,” he said last week. “I did not talk to any RCMP person.” Chrétien also said he would refuse to testify before the

commission. But two of his closest advisers will appear: chief of staff Jean Pelletier, and Jean Carle, then the PMO’s director of operations.

Carle’s testimony may be the most revealing. A close friend of the Chrétien family, as well as a longtime aide, Carle developed a fierce reputation for throwing his weight around after the Liberals won power in 1993. In one unsavory incident, he publicly berated Canada’s ambassador to Egypt, Michael Bell, at the 1996 Sharm-el Sheik anti-terrorism summit, blaming him for an embarrassing snafu between the PMO and Egyptian security officials. As director of operations, Carle was the PMO’s liaison with the RCMP—an area where political and security concerns can easily overlap. Some RCMP officers privately told Maclean ’s they are taking the blame for simply carrying out the PMO’s orders, which they allege included instructions to move demonstrators away from the leaders.

In the run-up to the APEC summit, Chrétien’s office was clearly intent on assuaging Suharto’s worries. Through his ambassador to Canada, the dictator made it clear he did not want to see any protests against him, and threatened to boycott the summit unless that was assured. Aides say Chrétien grew increasingly exasperated by Suharto’s demands—but he could hardly ignore them. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, and Suharto was the most influential leader in southeast Asia. A summit without him might be deemed a failure.

As a result, documents show, Axworthy and Chrétien reassured the Indonesians in personal letters that Suharto would not have to worry about his “comfort,” as they put it. Axworthy also reportedly apologized to the Indonesian foreign minister that the “Wanted” posters of Suharto then appearing in Canadian cities were “outrageous and excessive”—a surprising statement from a minister who was a civil rights marcher in his own student days. The RCMP even agreed to allow Suharto’s own security agents to carry concealed weapons, although they did tell the visitors, in answer to their questions, that shooting demonstrators “would not be tolerated”— and that they could do nothing to control media coverage.

It may be difficult to prove at the Vancouver hearings that RCMP security efforts went too far. The responsibility for keeping foreign dignitaries safe from harm while on Canadian soil can be used to justify strict control measures. (According to reports at week’s end, concern for the demonstrators themselves may have been a factor, especially after the RCMP learned that Suharto’s son-in-law, the muchfeared head of Indonesia’s secret police, was leading the dictator’s special guard detail.) But next week’s testimony may shed light on a more unsettling question: whether a Canadian prime minister or his staff tried to stop citizens from advocating freedom and democracy, all to avoid embarrassing a visiting despot.

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa

Arresting a protester (above); Carle: a senior Chrétien aide