It has taken me a full week to write this blog, because this week, I am embarrassed to be a Canadian. It's the first time I can ever, truly, say that. I used to hold the self-satisfied smugness that nothing as disgusting and disappointing as last weekend's G20 summit crackdown could ever happen here in Canada. I remember a friend at UCLA ribbing me about how Canadians walk around feeling so self-satisfied and virtuous and how it drove her crazy. I figured she was just jealous that a kid with a backpack and a Canadian flag could pass through countries where Americans were unwelcome. We were the country that everyone wanted to be. We were nice, kind and compassionate about our fellow citizens. We had gun control and universal healthcare. Michael Moore held us up as an example of a caring, democratic society. I thought we were different, I really did.
I was so wrong, and the depth of the sadness and anger I feel about what happened is surprising, even to me.
Perhaps the massive price tag for the event should have been a tip-off. Where did we think that money was being spent? On fences? Sure, they were extensive, but 1.4 billion dollars worth? After the weekend, it's clear where the money was spent – on police officers, enough police officers to form a small army that flooded out on our streets in a staggering show of force. I hope they have some of that money left over for the mass of lawsuits about to be filed.
I took my family outside the city for the summit because we live within a few blocks of the red zone. I did this because we have a one-year-old child and I had a strange sense of foreboding about the entire event. I mistakenly feared that the summit itself would be the source of the trouble, that putting that many important world leaders together in such a small place was a really bad idea. I had no idea that the sense of doom I felt would be the death of freedom, of our innocence as a country and of our reputation on the world stage. Even Iran condemned our attack on human rights!
First let me say that I do not support the black bloc method of protest. I know they are trying to bring attention to “big money”, “big government” and break down the system because they believe it is fundamentally flawed and they feel they need violence to get people's attention. I believe that things need to change as well, but I do not believe that the way to get anything done about it is to smash in the window of a Starbucks. To smash in the window of a local, unknown, retailer is just stupid and irresponsible. What exactly are you railing against? Big dollar stores?
What I do support, however, is peaceful protest. Walk our streets, chant your message, raise your placards and protest! We even had a “designated protest area” in Toronto at Queen's Park. People were told, well in advance of the summit that they could peacefully assemble there. So, if a law abiding, conscientious citizen wanted to do the right thing, they went to Queen's Park and stated their case. The problem? By late afternoon on Saturday, storm troopers rolled down the streets and flushed the lawfully protesting citizens out. Often violently. If you were watching the news coverage on Saturday, the thugs were the police. It was the police that were assembling with violent intent. It was a disgusting abuse of power.
While police cars burned and a handful of hooligans paralysed the city, where were these thousands of police? If the intent was to protect property and people, then why was Saturday such a woeful failure? Why did the police allow rioters to assemble and burn cars and property? Where were they then? The cynic in me says that the police allowed the cars to burn to show just how “bad” the protesters were and that they were justified in their show of force. Of course we will never know why things went down the way they did on Saturday.
What disturbed me most was Sunday. Approximately 100 protestors were boxed in by two rows of riot police at Queen and Spadina and not allowed to disperse, forced to stand in the driving rain for more than 2 hours Sunday night. Their crime? Walking on a public street, protesting. Nothing was burned, broken or destroyed. No one was bullied, heckled or taunted. They were just walking. You can read about journalist Michael Talbot's odyssey here. He was arrested and confined in the ad hoc detention centre along with mothers, fathers, kids, curious teenagers and residents of the area who had the nerve to leave their homes for groceries. It was shocking, disturbing and frightening. What had happened to our fair city? Was this retribution for the events on the weekend? Had the police lost their minds?
Equally shocking and disappointing were the reactions of Torontonians to this outrageous abuse of power. Most blamed the peaceful protesters, many even going so far as to suggest that they “got what they deserved” or that somehow they were whiners because they didn't like being held in dog kennels overnight for a crime they didn't commit. The comments I've read made me despair for our society – we clearly are only interested in our own little corner of the world and don't want it upset. “We want to shop” should be the mantra of the apathetic. Don't cause trouble, don't speak up and don't question anything. That's the real message that Canadians sent out this week.
The greatest irony is that many people don't see what really happened this week. We lost fundamental freedoms that are enshrined in our Charter of Rights. Our Chief of Police lied to us. Our city became a police state. This was a dark, dark weekend in the history of Toronto and one I know will haunt me for a long time to come.
We have the right to peaceful protest. We have the right to freedom of expression. We have the right to walk on our streets. Tens of thousands of our forefathers died protecting this right. We probably all have a relative that died fighting in the world wars; Canada has a history of coming to the defence of others. We all say we believe in freedom, but we are unwilling or unable to see that what happened this week was an assault on our freedom and an assault on Canada.
Burn a car? Get arrested. Break a window, threaten a cop, get arrested. That is just and right.
But march peacefully and get arrested? Assemble legally and get arrested? This is unjust and must be challenged. We cannot quietly let this slide. We must hold our leaders accountable for what happened. Harper is such an easy target in all this I won't waste time discussing it here. But McGuinty was surprisingly misguided and unrepentant in his secret passing of a bill to restrict our rights. When he could have called a press conference to state unequivocally that the law was being misinterpreted, he remained silent. I voted for McGuinty in the last election, but he has most certainly lost that vote.
And where are our leaders of the opposition? The only thing to come out of Ignatieff's camp this week is that “The Queen has a wonderful sense of humour.” He's asleep at the wheel and is seriously hurting the Liberals chance of getting back into office. The only leaders going on record about this are the NDP's Jack Layton and Green Party leader Elizabeth May. Pay attention to this, folks, and remember it at election time.
Freedom doesn't disappear overnight. A just, democratic society is a precious thing that needs to be protected, even if we don't like or agree with those within it. I may think that a protester is an idiot for behaving differently than I do, or wonder why someone would come down just to watch, but I agree that he or she has the right to do it.
And that's the crux of it – we are an open, democratic society where peaceful protest should be welcome, not squashed under the jackboot of the authorities.
Let's not lose our Canada, at least the one we can all remember.