When protest met pepper spray at the 1997 APEC conference

At an economic forum for Asia-Pacific world leaders in Vancouver, police armed with tear gas confronted protesters demonstrating over those leaders' human rights records.

PM later dismissed questions about heavy-handed police procedures

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien dismisses concerns about police using pepper spray on protesters at the 1997 APEC Conference in Vancouver. 2:27

Protesters were out in full force at the University of British Columbia on Nov. 25, 1997, as Canada hosted that year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

According to host Peter Mansbridge, the crowd numbered in the hundreds. The Globe and Mail put it at 2,000.

"Dozens of arrests threw a sharp light on the debate over APEC and human rights," said CBC reporter Terry Milewski.

Meanwhile, the camera caught scenes of police clashing with the crowd.

Eye-stinging gas

Staff Sgt. Hugh Stewart directed pepper spray at both protesters and news cameras. He was later promoted within the RCMP. (The National/CBC Archives)

Armed with canisters of pepper spray, the police — Vancouver officers and RCMP members among them — sent streams of the eye-stinging gas into the crowd. 

The scene was a security perimeter set up to keep protesters far away from leaders like President Suharto of Indonesia as they discussed "the economic and social well-being" of their people, said Milewski.

"Poor people in the countries are supposed to be able to prosper," said protester Gabby Resch, whose eyes were still squeezed shut from tear gas. "Suharto ... has been in since 1965. Don't you think that's ample time? Don't you think they've had plenty of time to let other people prosper?"

The police seemed mainly concerned with crowd control, even sending pepper spray at close range straight into the lens of a CBC camera.

As Milewski pointed out, such summits might not even take place if countries like Canada had not agreed to "keep the focus off politics and on economics."

'An end to torturing'

Many protesters singled out Indonesian ruler Suharto, who had held power for 32 years. (The National/Digital Archives)

To protesters, that stance was an embarrassment, he said. John Tackaberry, with the human-rights organization Amnesty International, agreed. 

"We're saying to these governments, economic and social well-being has to means an end to jailing, an end to torturing," he said.  

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said he had no plans to raise the issue with APEC.

"I don't think that APEC will ever have human rights on its agenda," he told a press conference later in the day.

The use of tear gas on the protesters didn't concern him much either. When asked about pepper spray, his answer drew laughter.

"For me, pepper, I put it on my plate," he said, making a gesture of seasoning food from a shaker.

In August 2001, a final report stemming from an inquiry on the matter "slammed" the RCMP's handling of the event, according to reporting by CBC News.