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Police officers push back demonstrators amid a protest during last June's G20 summit in Toronto. The Reuters photographer who snapped this shot would later be aggressively taken down by police and arrested. ((Mark Blinch/Reuters))

It has been a frenzied year for the public-security units of Canada's big police forces. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver were followed by the G8 and G20 summer summits in southern Ontario, with officers jetted in from across the country for all three events.

Forty years ago, when security concerns boiled over during the October Crisis in Quebec, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sent in the army (for the third time in two years) and imposed the War Measures Act, drastically curtailing civil liberties. This year, amid the agitation of the G20 demonstrations in Toronto, police kept the reins — though the military was always nearby.

It gives pause to ask: Could we ever again see thousands of rifle-bearing soldiers in a Canadian city's streets under similar circumstances? Or have police powers and duties ballooned enough to nix that chance?

What lessons did police draw from this year's mega-protests, and how will tactics alter for next time?

New powers, new limits

Policing in Canada has seen "significant changes" since 1970, says Paul Kennedy, the former commissioner of complaints against the RCMP and a onetime assistant deputy minister at the Public Safety Department. Between the Charter of Rights, the creation of CSIS in 1984 and changes to the Criminal Code after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, police forces have new public-security powers — and new limits.

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A patrol of soldiers with semiautomatic rifles and a machine gun marches past Montreal City Hall on Oct. 16, 1970. Troops guarded strategic sites in Montreal, including the main post office, provincial police headquarters, army barracks and municipal police HQ. ((Canadian Press/La Presse) )

They also routinely collaborate on security cases like the so-called Toronto 18 plot and the recent arrests of three men in Ottawa and London, Ont., on terrorism-related charges, Kennedy said. 

The career civil servant nearly experienced the October Crisis first-hand. He graduated from Loyola College in Montreal in spring 1969; that November, a cell of the Front de libération du Québec, or FLQ, set off a bomb in the university.

"There are different tools available, different experience. That experience on the ground, that integration, the charter, those things are marked improvements," Kennedy says. "Clearly the police are improving."

Ottawa police Chief Vern White says integration of his force with federal agents on security cases began in earnest after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, when there was uncertainty among authorities about whether Canada might be targeted next.

"It used to be maybe that we would be asked to assist, from an operational perspective. But today we in Ottawa here sit regularly with the RCMP, CSIS and other partners to ensure that strategically we're able to manage the information and try and deal with some of the threats," White said. "Post-9/11, I think, might have been the trigger."

It's a role municipal forces are well suited for, White contends, even without the skulduggery powers of a spy agency.

"Realistically, terrorism, as an example, and national security in this country is not typically an external issue. It's internal to the country in the first place. Typically, we're the boots on the ground in the big cities that this occurs in, so I think that makes us an obvious partner in dealing with these cases," the police chief says.

Miami model

At the other end of the nightstick lies a different story. In this view, modern-day police methods for handling public-order episodes took shape after 50,000 protesters halted World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in 1999. The power of the masses was felt with sudden acuity — and it demanded more forceful police tactics.

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Police fire pepper spray and pellets at protesters outside the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in November 1999. The Seattle demonstrations are often said to have been a watershed for how police confront large rallies. ((Andy Clark/Reuters))

"There was a real rethinking of protest policing in the wake of Seattle," says Lesley Wood, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto who studies policing. "There had been this model of negotiated management, which was that you try and work with protesters in order to minimize risk.

"And so there was this real shift after Seattle to a different model. You could call it selective enforcement, so there's an attempt to figure out who the good protesters are and who the bad protesters are, and negotiate with the good ones and enforce hard on the bad ones."

It's a policing framework that many activists call the "Miami model," and that they say played out during the G20 in Toronto.

Named for the host city of 2003 negotiations toward a Free Trade Area of the Americas, the elements include things like the mass acquisition and deployment of surveillance and anti-protest gear, having plainclothes police confront protest organizers weeks ahead of time to try to suss out their plans, playing up some kind of pre-event scare such as the discovery of a weapons cache or nefarious plot, the promulgation of emergency regulations and severe restrictions on where and how the public can demonstrate.

Wood worries that this new police approach can blend separate risks: the national-security threat posed by potential terrorism and the much lower risk, mainly of vandalism and disruption, posed by the staunchest protesters.

"Why is it that there's routine violations of constitutional or charter rights? It happens almost every time, and I think it's something about the combination of those two tasks," she said.

1970 all over again?

Or it may be that policing has fished out of the closet several old ploys from October Crisis days.

"Have the police refined their tactics? Yes, but at base they're similar," said Sophie Sénécal, spokesperson for the Collective Opposed to Police Brutality, a Montreal-based community group.

'They're still infiltrating groups [in] an attempt to undermine the group's legitimacy. That hasn't changed since the era of the FLQ'—Sophie Sénécal

"They're still infiltrating groups by developing relationships, even intimate ones, with protesters. And the infiltrators have a tendency to push for actions that are more violent, which is an attempt to undermine the group's legitimacy. That hasn't changed since the era of the FLQ."

Indeed, it was the RCMP's dirty-tricks campaign against Quebec separatists that led to the hiving off of its security intelligence division into CSIS in 1984.

And, despite former RCMP complaints commissioner Kennedy's admonition that "there's no way that you'd compare the G20 in Toronto with the 1970s," there are eerie similarities between the October Crisis and the events of last June. The mass arrests, with most people being released without charge. The systematic, warrantless searches of people on the streets. The pre-dawn raids of activists' homes. The omnipresence of armed personnel on downtown streets.

It prompts the question: Will security policing change in the wake of the G20? Or is it a case of plus ça change

For now, it's hard to know. The Toronto police ignored several requests for comment, while the RCMP, which took overall charge of G20 security, refused an interview for this article.

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Paul Kennedy, a former senior civil servant at Public Safety Canada, says the government needs to reassess where it holds global summits to pare the tendency toward 'aggressive police tactics.' ((CBC))

The Mounties did say this in an emailed statement: "Many lessons have been learned from the recent Olympics and G8 and G20 summits, such as integrated planning with key stakeholders like local police, municipalities, federal and provincial agencies and critical infrastructure industries, as well as starting to plan for at the earliest possible stage is the key to success."

Sénécal and Wood suggested only time will tell whether forces feel the need to modify their approach, as the hundreds of G20-derived complaints against them are investigated, the $161 million in lawsuits get litigated and the truth emerges about who ordered what against whom.

Kennedy said police and governments need to rethink what venues they use for high-level summits and whether it wouldn't be wiser to opt for locales less prone to "circumstances that can give rise to a use of aggressive police tactics."

White didn't offer any specific lessons, but he said the constabulary is always looking to learn.

"I think there's always learning coming from everyone, and sometimes that might include some opportunities to quell demonstrations in certain locations, that might include large numbers of arrests. I think every time one of those occurs, you have to learn from it."

                                       Toronto G20 vs. October Crisis by the numbers
   G20 summit October Crisis  
 Arrested  1,105  497
 Initially charged  308  62
 Still charged 2 months later  239 32 
 Convicted  6* 18 
 Time in jail for most detainees  <24 hrs  1 week
*As of Oct. 5, 2010