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The weekend of June 26 and 27, 2010 will be remembered by Canadians as the day the federal Canadian government and Ontario provincial government, along with the police of Canada’s largest city, having failed to stop anarchist mayhem, instead acted in unison to thwart freedom of speech and assembly of its citizens as Toronto hosted the G20 meeting.
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper insisted on holding the G20 meetings in the downtown core of the city of Toronto – against the wishes of the Mayor, David Miller, and the Municipal Council, who proposed a relatively enclosed and separate fair ground outside the city core. The taxpayer’s bill -just for security purposes- amounted to 1.3 billion dollars – about ten times the cost of the previous summit that took place in Cleveland, USA, making it the most expensive meeting ever of world leaders. (1) This does not include an undisclosed amount for the rest of the costs, which includes creating (in this land of innumerable lakes!) an artificial lake for the benefit of the G8 meeting taking place in a small town outside Toronto. What dismayed most of the protestors is that the Canadian government can come up with this enormous amount of money to throw a glorified party for global leaders, but repeatedly tells its citizens there is no money for schools, daycare, health services, social services, universities, environment, climate change, or public transit.
A fence of steel and concrete was erected in the downtown core, isolating the world leaders from the real city, its people, and significantly, the media. Toronto’s downtown, normally a lively place full of neighborhoods where people live, study and work – was turned into a virtual ghost town, as public transit, schools, university, stores and restaurants were closed, and people in the area were even warned not to leave their own homes. The police strategy was to line that fence with thousands of policemen.
The provincial Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty saw fit on June 2, to give -surreptitiously – to the Toronto chief of police, Bill Blair, unprecedented powers to detain, search and arrest citizen they deemed suspicious if they were 5 meters from the wall– powers only used in time of war or to protect the particular court buildings. This occurred behind doors, without any discussion in the Legislature, without consultation with the leaders of Ontario’s political parties and without the knowledge or consent of Toronto’s Mayor, who stated on TV that he learned about it from the newspapers. The Canadian media, usually circumspect, has dubbed it a “Secret Law”.
Leading up to the G8 and G20 meetings, there were a series of peaceful protests that included many well-known NGOs. But, on Sunday, June 26, a black-clad group called the Black Bloc disrupted the main protest march, organized by the prominent Canadian Labour Congress, by breaking store windows and burning four police cruisers; they harmed property but did not attack people. Nonetheless, violence carried out by the Black Bloc has rarely been seen in Canada, and it shocked Torontonians, but they were also shocked to see that while thousands of police lined the perimeter of the metal fence that isolated the foreign dignitaries, the destruction caused by the Black Bloc, went practically unchecked. Despite massive resources and unprecedented special police powers, the police failed to ensure the security of its citizens, as this small group of anarchists was able to cause mayhem in the city’s main streets, not far from the police protected fence. The police was either intentionally lax in order to “justify” their resources and extra power, or they were outwitted by a small group. Later, the chief of police, perhaps to cover police incompetence, had the temerity to call the window smashing hoodlums, “terrorists”, equating them to the bomb throwers that massacre people.
This incongruence between police protection of leaders and the lack of it for citizens, became blatantly obvious to those on the scene and the media covering the events, so within an hour or two, the police switched tactics and began massive arrests – “catch and release” they called it- in which 900 people were ultimately arrested, most of them apparently simple protesters and even passersby. Toronto had never seen anything like this: police in riot gear, use of tear gas and rubber bullets, hovering helicopters over the city, massive surveillance and arrests, new weaponry that included an ear-splitting sound boom, home searches without warrants, all amounting to police brutality and intimidation against peaceful protestors. Media reporters did not escape it as several were punched, had cameras confiscated and ultimately arrested, notably from the UK Guardian, CTV, National Post newspaper and some from the alternative media. (2)
In contrast, during these last ten years, the USA-financed opposition in Venezuela staged many large demonstrations against the democratic government of President Hugo Chávez. (3) These demonstrations were remarkably contained by the authorities, despite the presence of “shock” teams of aggressive youths whose job was to provoke the police. When violence ensued, it was perpetrated by these opposition hotheads who burned tires and cars, blocked major highways, and threw stones and bricks at policemen, injuring many. There were no massive arrests, no “catch and release” tactics by the authorities, no arrests of media reporters. The only people duly and legally arrested were those caught in the very acts of violence against police and property. President Chávez did not implement any “secret law” to get special war powers for the police. The media does not report that Venezuelan law forbids police from having live ammunition during demonstrations and strikes or that the Chávez Administration modernized the force with education on community policing, professional ethics, crime prevention measures and human rights training. In 2008 alone, five thousand policemen went through a two-year human rights training course.
Nevertheless, the international press and US and Canadian officials saw fit to express “concern” over these demonstrations, implying that the Venezuelan government was somehow to blame and that it was being brutal to the protestors. The violence of the opposition has rarely been mentioned, and it goes largely ignored that most leaders of the Venezuelan opposition are no paragons of democratic values having taken part and/or supported the 2002 coup d’etat and kidnapping of the President.
The lie that President Chávez is a brutal dictator is repeated over and over again by the international press. Even when admitting that he was duly and democratically elected, Canadian officials, (4) are keen to say that President Chávez governs autocratically and thus imperils democracy in Venezuela. The events of last weekend demonstrate that the shoe fits on Canada – it is Canada that is being governed autocratically putting in peril its own democracy.
Maria Páez Victor is Director of Political Affairs at the National Council of Latin American and Caribbean Women in Canada.
(3) The US State Department budget for 2011 shows an increase of financing to Venezuelan opposition groups of more than $15 million, plus an additional $48 million for the Organization of American States to deploy special “democracy promoter ”teams to Venezuela and Bolivia. See Eva Golinger, “Permanent Aggression, War on the Horizon in Latin America”, Correo del Orinoco Internacional, June 2010