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Attack on civil liberties warrants repercussions

A word of advice for Dalton McGuinty: the next time Stephen Harper comes calling, tell him to go pound salt.

Actually, that’s good advice for every Canadian, but the Ontario premier has a particularly good reason to do so. Well, two, actually: the HST and the G8/G20 summits.

McGuinty’s agreement with Ottawa on the former has turned into the largest of his many political blunders, a public relations mess he’s unlikely to live down.

The summits, particularly what unfolded in Toronto, are in many ways more troubling. In a scathing report released this week, Ontario’s Ombudsman took the provincial government out to the woodshed for its role in Harper’s epic boondoggle.

McGuinty should have said no to any and all plans for holding the useless summits in this province. At the very least, there should have been zero cooperation. Instead, as André Marin’s report shows, Queen’s Park joined in on the police-state frenzy, trampling all over the rights of Ontarians.

In using the obscure Public Works Protection Act to give police extraordinary powers, the government was complicit in the illegal acts that followed. The police will have to answer for the abuse of power displayed last summer, but the province helped lay the framework.

“By creating security zones to bar entry and by authorizing arrest, it imposed definite limits on freedom of expression. It was therefore in prima facie violation of the Charter as a matter of law, likely in ways that are not constitutionally justifiable,” Marin writes in his report, entitled Caught in the Act.

“Regulation 233/10 worked to trip the powers of the Public Works Protection Act, thereby enabling the arrest and muting of protesters and others who had done nothing wrong.”

Clearly, the Ombudsman sees plenty wrong with what unfolded in June, from the invocation of legislation from the Second World War through to the lies told to the public and the failure to restrain police.

In the days leading up to and over the course of the G20 summit weekend, some 1,105 people were arrested – the largest mass arrest in Canadian history.

An estimated 20,000 security personnel were involved with security for the two summits, including private security guards contracted by the federal government. The staggering cost for hosting the events was estimated at more than $1 billion. The nearly 10 kilometres of security fencing around downtown
Toronto alone cost an estimated $9.4 million, Marin reports.

In the aftermath of the summit – which cost citizens their civil liberties and more than $1 billion of their tax dollars – we got nothing but arrogant responses from officials. Slowly, we got some backpedaling, but there was plenty of obfuscation and attempts to “deflect responsibility,” as Marin puts it.

The day after the Ombudsman’s report, McGuinty accepted responsibility for his government’s role in the G20 fiasco. The apology rings a little hollow, however, as it came only after the unflattering revelations. In order to carry any weight, the mea culpas will have to be followed by the appropriate resignations and firings. Perhaps even some criminal charges.

Toronto Police chief Bill Blair is the obvious first candidate to fall on his sword. He requested the powers under the Public Works Protection Act, and he failed to limit the abuses perpetrated under the act.

McGuinty did himself no favours when he said he continued to have confidence in Blair. The chief falls under city council’s jurisdiction, but the Premier can do something about those in the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services who went along with Blair’s request.

“The Ministry simply handed over to the Toronto Police Service inordinate powers, without any efforts made to ensure those powers would not be misunderstood,” reads Marin’s report. “More importantly, it was grossly unreasonable and unfair for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to let Regulation 233/10 fly under the radar the way it did. Apart from insiders in the government of Ontario, only members of the Toronto Police Service knew that the rules of the game had changed, and they were the ones holding the deck of ‘go directly to jail’ cards.”

There are some civil suits already underway in relation to the abuses at the G20 summit, but no criminal charges yet in connection with officials and organizers. Given the reluctance to hold inquiries about what was clearly misconduct, we ought not to be holding our breath for arrests.

For now, we’ve got two class-action suits in the works. One seeks $45 million for those wrongfully arrested, detained, imprisoned or held by police during the G20 summit. The other wants $115 million for those detained and arrested and business owners whose properties were vandalized.

Justice shouldn’t be left solely to the civil courts, however. Without serious consequences for those responsible for the G20 debacle, we’ll certainly see more attacks on our liberties.

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