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ATAMANENKO: The state of democracy in Canada

One of the hallmarks of a democratic state is its commitment to free, public and political expression.

Indeed, no society can call itself truly democratic if it does not guarantee its citizens the inalienable rights to gather, communicate their opinion and demonstrate their support for or against any political position they wish.

If these assertions are true, Canada’s behavior during the G20 Summit held this summer in Toronto casts serious doubt on the current state of democracy in this country.

June 26 to 28, 2010 saw the largest mass arrests in Canada’s history.

Without warning or cause, innocent bystanders and peaceful protesters were encircled by police and imprisoned in cages. Sleeping students were awakened at gunpoint, kicked in the ribs and paraded before the media in handcuffs as they were marched off to jail cells.

Police illegally searched people and seized their property at will.  Cell phones were taken and police openly scrolled through people’s phone records and read their emails while people in detention were subjected to base humiliations.

Racist, sexist and violent taunts and threats were spewed by guards at those detained.

I have personally communicated with three young people caught up in this flagrant abuse of power.  Becky Russell, formally of Grand Forks, and two members of the UBC Kelowna Student Council, Grayson Lepp and Kirk Chavarie who related to me how they were awoken at gun point and arrested.

Months later, when the State was compelled to establish the grounds upon which it acted, charges were withdrawn against almost every one of the 1100 people it arrested. In the end, several thousand people were wholly deprived of their right to express their political beliefs while world leaders gathered in Toronto.

Just as disturbing is the fact that the Harper Conservatives have been openly contemptuous of every attempt to shed light on these flagrant breaches.  They have refused to acknowledge that abuses occurred, tried to frustrate efforts to get at the truth, and engaged in a shameful attempt to blame our citizens for the excesses of the police.

My colleague Don Davies, NDP Public Safety critic has spearheaded efforts to determine who was responsible for these outrageous actions, and to hold them accountable.  Through motion filed in July and September, and over the negative votes of the government members, he and other members of the opposition secured five days of hearings before the Public Safety Committee.

Appearing as a witness, Public Safety Minister, Vic Toews rebuffed every suggestion that breaches even occurred.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair admitted that 90 police officers were found to have covered up their name and badge numbers while carrying out their duties in flagrant violations of TPS rules and the Chief’s own instructions.  Questions regarding why his officers failed to get a proper warrant before bursting into the U of T gym, why they pulled guns on sleeping students and who ordered the dawn raid remain unanswered.

Perhaps most alarming of all has been the clear rejection by the Harper Conservatives of the notion that it is their responsibility as elected representatives to hold the police accountable for their violations of our Constitutional and democratic rights.

Every government witness elected and otherwise, asserted that the police actions taken during the G20 were the result of “operational decisions” of the police that were “not the government’s business”.   According to them, we have no choice but to watch our rights be trampled, and then let some ill-defined, poorly resourced and under-powered police complaint commissioner uphold our most cherished democratic entitlements.

This is nonsense.

What clearly happened this summer was one of the worst civil rights abuses our country has seen in decades.  Our elected officials should be outraged and calling every single responsible official to account immediately for these outrageous and flagrant abuses of power.

After all, our Constitutional rights are not privileges.  We have a right to expect that the police forces in this country are subservient to the Constitution and the political representatives we elect to uphold our democratic rights.

This is what distinguishes a democratic nation from a police state.

I call upon the Prime Minister to conduct a full public enquiry into the violations of basic democratic rights at the G20 Summit.

Alex Atamanenko is the MP for the Southern Interior of BC.