Olympic activists rebut police claim about 2010 civil rights consultations

Police say they have been meeting with critics of the 2010 Winter Games to discuss security plans for the duration of the international event.

Social-justice campaigners have been asked to spy on each other

Security measures during the 2010 Winter Games are being provided by the Integrated Security Unit, or ISU, a consortium of local police, RCMP, the Canadian military and other agencies. ((Vancouver Organizing Committee))

Police say they have been meeting with critics of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games to discuss security plans for the duration of the international event.

But that comes as news to many of the leading watchdog groups, who say they haven't heard anything from the integrated policing unit that will be responsible for securing the Olympics — and respecting civil rights while they do it.

Assistant Commissioner Bud Mercer, the head of the RCMP-led Olympics security team, said protest groups are at the table as the unit works toward its security planning.

"Our community relations group actively is reaching out to protest groups that we have identified or that have been self-identified, and we'll continue to work with them to determine how we fit, how we can help, how can we can facilitate," Mercer said.

The Integrated Security Unit, or ISU, is a consortium of local police, RCMP, the Canadian military and other agencies.

The commitment to work with residents to make sure civil rights are protected during the Games is part of an agreement the ISU, Olympic organizers and governments signed prior to Vancouver winning the bid.

But the unit refuses to release a list of the groups it's working with, and the leaders of the major Olympic protest groups say they haven't been contacted.

"I certainly haven't been [contacted], and I don't know others who have been, up till now," said Chris Shaw, who has written a book about the Vancouver Olympics and runs an anti-Olympic website.

A leader with the Olympic Resistance Network, Harsha Walia, said she hasn't heard from police either.

"It appears that [the security unit] and [Games organizers] are trying to fool the public yet again with their false claims," Walia said in an email.

"They want us to believe that Olympics security measures will respect the democratic rights of protesters, when the reality is the stark opposite: Such measures are intended to dissuade... and repress Olympics opposition."

Budget not finalized

With just over a year until the Olympics, security remains one of the biggest question marks.

The security budget has yet to be unveiled, and while some elements of the plan have been revealed, the ISU repeatedly cites security concerns when pressed for details. The original estimated security cost for the Games was $175 million, but in October, Stockwell Day, then the federal public safety minister, acknowledged the final tally would be more than double that, between $400 million and $1 billion.

Furthermore, documents released under freedom-of-information laws suggest that while the ISU may not be publicly meeting with protest groups, they are watching them.

Organizations like the Anti-Poverty Committee and No One is Illegal Vancouver have been specifically mentioned as being potential direct threats to the Games.

Despite that, no one at either group said they have been officially contacted by police, though some members report being approached to be informants.

While activists are free to protest during the Games, Mercer suggested he's open to creating "protest parks" for the Olympics.

"What we're suggesting is that we'll work with you and try to designate a place where you can get your message out, and it'll be a place that you may be more comfortable with than standing on the sidewalk," he said.

He said the idea of designated protest sites will depend on the success of working with the groups.

"In order to ensure that we can continue those discussions based on a level of trust, it is not appropriate to provide those names publicly," spokeswoman Cpl. Jennifer Allan said.

An official with the Olympic organizing committee, known as VANOC, said they haven't had direct consultations on the issue of civil rights, but they are working to organize something.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, which has promised wide-scale Olympic protest, said he anticipates a call but hasn't got one yet.

Phillip said his office did get a call from West Vancouver police a few months ago that seemed to be in regard to the Olympics, but nothing came of it.

"Obviously they have an interest in meeting with us and obviously it doesn't appear to be that urgent," he said.

Allan did confirm a meeting with the Civil Liberties Advisory Committee, a panel of experts struck by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to help guide the unit on civil rights.

There was just the one meeting, about a year ago, and it was only to meet the planning team.

Jerry Paradis, a retired judge who oversees the committee's work, said when they asked for more details on the security plan, the response was off-putting enough to freeze any further talks. But dialogue was revived earlier this month.