The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, April 24, 2001
A police state in the making
By Sinclair Stevens
Our government forgot to practise what it preached, says SINCLAIR STEVENS,
when it trampled democracy in Quebec City
I never thought I'd be writing this article, surely not in Canada. There aren't many people in this country who view free trade as
positively as I do. As industry minister in the Mulroney government, I participated in the 1985 Shamrock Summit that set the stage for our trade agreement with the United States. I was even responsible for replacing the Foreign Investment Review Agency with Investment Canada, a welcome mat for our partners to the South.
There also aren't many people who view the maintenance of law and order as a higher priority than I do.
But this past weekend, I was shocked by events in Quebec City. Shocked by what I saw, and stunned by what my wife, Noreen, and I personally experienced.
I believe Canada is right to view free trade as a model for democratic development in every corner of our hemisphere, and I was delighted to see us host the Summit of the Americas. But our government is dead wrong to behave in a manner that suggests we have forgotten what democracy is all about.
Noreen and I arrived in Quebec City last Friday at about 5 p.m. We had heard about the so-called security fence and wanted to see it firsthand, to walk along beside it. My first view of the fence was in front of the Château Frontenac. It brought back memories of many happy visits to that hotel. But, this weekend, I could not enter: The hotel was inside the fence, I was outside.
As we walked around the perimeter, a 40-year-old chap passed us, and asked: "Where is your gas mask?" I asked what he meant. He said: "There is gas farther on -- watch out." We continued until we saw our first contingent of riot-geared police lined up three deep behind a closed gate. They were an intimidating sight -- in battle dress, with helmets, masks, shields and assorted elaborate weapons. I was glad, this time, that they were inside the fence and we were outside.
Farther on, just before we got to Dufferin Street, there were perhaps 50 people -- protesters, it turned out -- who were standing or sitting on a small side road. At the end of the road, we saw a much larger group of riot police standing shoulder-to-shoulder, several rows deep. Theroad was well away from the security fence. In fact, the fence was nowhere in sight.
I spoke with many of the people in the street, asked them why they had gathered,why they opposed the free trade proposals. It was a lively but friendly exchange.
We were interrupted as the police down the road began an eerie drumming, rattling their riot sticks against their shields. Slowly, in unison, one six-inch step at a time, they began marching toward us. Noreen and I moved to the side of the street, as the protesters remained stationary. Some formed V signs with their fingers.
To my horror, the police then fired tear gas canisters directly at those sitting or standing on the road.
As clouds of gas began to spread, Noreen and I felt our eyes sting and our throats bake. We pulled whatever clothing we could across our mouths. One young woman, who had been among the protesters, offered us some vinegar. "What's that for?" I asked. "It takes away the sting," she said. And it did help.
The police, however, kept advancing. One large policeman with the number 5905 on his helmet, pressed right against me and ordered me to get behind a railing. "I haven't done anything," I protested. "Why?" He simply replied: "Get behind the rail." Then he added, "and get down." I did so.
I shook my head. I never thought I would ever see this kind of police-state tactic in Canada. What we witnessed that night was
mild compared to events the next afternoon.
This time, walked along the fence until we reached the gate at René Lévesque Boulevard, where a great crowd had gathered that included TV cameras and reporters. I was asked for an interview by a CBC crew but, before we could begin, dozens of tear gas canisters were fired, water cannons were sprayed and rubber bullets began to hit people nearby. Three times, I felt could not breathe, my eyes were sore and all I could do was run. In the bedlam, my wife and I were separated for almost three hours. She said she had almost passed out from the gassing.
We lost something else, besides each other, last weekend in Quebec: our innocence. This government, and some reporters, like to brand the Quebec City demonstrators as "hooligans." That is not fair. I talked to dozens of them, mostly university students, aged about 20. They came to Quebec, not to have "a good time," as some suggest, but to express their well-thought-out views on a subject that is important to them, to all of us.
I may not have agreed with their position, but I sure believe in their right to express it. The police had no cause to violently suppress it.
Some will say that a handful of demonstrators got out of hand and forced the police to take collective action. I can't agree. The police action in Quebec City, under orders from our government, was a provocation itself -- an assault on all our freedoms.
Sinclair Stevens, minister of regional industrial expansion under Brian Mulroney, was an MP from 1972 to 1988.
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