Harper protest undercuts Mounties' efforts on security

So much for the safe, no-news chat the PMO had planned at the Vancouver Board of Trade. The softball questions? All forgotten — because two protesters strode easily past security to join the prime minister on stage and brandish their signs as they posed right next to him.

When guarding VIPs, the RCMP are damned if they do and damned if they don't

Two climate change protesters manage to breach security and get alarmingly close to the prime minister 3:54

So much for the safe, no-news chat the Prime Minister's Office had planned at the Vancouver Board of Trade. 

The softball questions from a non-journalist? The plug for the prime minister's hockey book? All forgotten — because two protesters strode easily past security to join the prime minister on stage and brandish their signs as they posed right next to him.

Perhaps it was the aprons. Obviously, they were waiters!

Still, you'd think the RCMP would have known about Sean Devlin. A well-known activist with the Climate Action Network in Vancouver, the 30-year-old Devlin has been the voice and the face of climate protests since at least 2009.

In March 2013, Devlin was on TV again, campaigning against pipelines.

So, too, in a separate protest against immigration policy, was his colleague Shireen Soofi.

But with that tasteful black apron to complete his waiter's ensemble, Devlin told CBC News that he and Soofi felt confident that they looked right where they belonged, hovering near the stage among the hotel staff as Vancouver's business elite gathered to hear Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Protester Sean Devlin is ushered offstage during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's appearance Monday at the Vancouver Board of Trade. Devlin has been the voice and the face of climate protests since at least 2009. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

There's no doubt that the RCMP does keep files on frequent protesters. Still, as Harper took the stage, nobody recognized Devlin or Soofi, and nobody knew they had hidden protest signs.

It only took a moment to get their message out. The two activists strode up the steps unchallenged, unfolded their signs and took their spots behind Harper. "Climate Justice Now," said Devlin's; Soofi's had "Conservatives Take Climate Change Seriously" — all crossed out.

The RCMP responded, but too late. The cameras had already clicked and zoomed. Soofi was led away decorously, picking her way politely through the crowd with her sign still held aloft. Devlin didn't fare so well. A beefy officer dragged him down the steps. He landed with a loud thud and was hustled backstage to the kitchen. In the end, both were released without charges.

Harper made light of it all. "It wouldn't be B.C. without it!" he quipped. Later, Devlin had a little fun with it, too.

"I'm actually a comedian by trade," he told the CBC's Evan Solomon, "and I have had a few harsh receptions on stage — but I think that was the harshest." 

Devlin added, "they threw me right off stage down some stairs and into the kitchen. Held me on the ground and then I was arrested and released. There haven't been any charges."

The 30-year-old environmentalist, originally from Guelph, Ont., said he was no security threat. 

"I wasn't there to hurt the prime minister today. I was there to communicate a message about people who I believe his policies are hurting," he said.

He added that his back hurts a bit from the fall. 

But the RCMP might be hurting, too.

Obviously, it's their job to make sure nobody who hasn't been screened gets close to the prime minister — and they go to extraordinary lengths to make sure. On Harper's 2012 trip to India, for example, the Mounties spent a million dollars to fly armoured cars from Canada, because the cars offered by the Indians were somehow found wanting.

In Agra, the Taj Mahal itself was locked down so that no one got anywhere near the Harpers as they strolled through a deserted garden, which an hour earlier was teeming with tourists.

And yet, the stage in Vancouver was all too crowded — even though the RCMP touts their VIP protection service as state of the art. 

An RCMP video on the topic is set to throbbing music, showing steely-eyed agents chasing down bad guys, kicking in doors and eyeing the crowds as they cautiously open the doors of those black limousines. The voiceover brags that the Mounties' VIP protection is so globally renowned that other countries send officers to Canada for training. 

"The RCMP provides the team to protect these VIPs," the video blares. "This team, composed of highly trained men and women, are skilled, alert and prepared for the unexpected!"

Well, usually. The truth is, they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Too oppressive, and they get complaints. Not oppressive enough, and they get embarrassments like this one. And they've worked hard to put previous embarrassments behind them — such as the prowler who got inside 24 Sussex Drive while the Chrétiens were asleep.

Nowadays, the RCMP agents strive to be both vigilant and unobtrusive. In person, they are good-humoured and professional. On Harper's foreign trips, they often seem to be the hardest-working people on the plane. But they are not the U.S. Secret Service — screening every busboy who might get into the room.

Maybe, now, they'll have to consider that. It wasn't what Devlin and Soofi were hoping for, but more onerous — and costly — security checks for waiters may be inevitable. 

For the record, both the PMO and the force say they can't comment on security matters. But the RCMP add that "we are reviewing the details" of the Vancouver incident. After that, the statement says, "appropriate action will be taken."

So look out, waiters. A background check may become part of your job. You can thank Devlin and Soofi.

About the Author

Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


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