Protest is being criminalized, a trend which is dangerous for democracy,
according to activist and author Tony Clarke. Furthermore, he adds, that
delicate balance is tilting toward imposed order.
Clarke was speaking at the opening of a two-day conference March 11-12
on Protest, Freedom and Order in Canada: Finding the Right Balance, sponsored
by the Institute for Research on Public Policy and Concordias School
for Community and Public Affairs.
The right to dissent and protest is a cardinal feature of liberal
democracy, he said. We have to ask whether we still have that
right. The pendulum has swung too far; protest and dissent are being criminalized,
and even being labelled as terrorism.
Clarke is the director of the Polaris Institute of Canada, an organization
that helps citizen-based movements bring about social change; hes
also the author of Silent Coup: Confronting the Big Business Takeover
in Canada, among other books. He argues that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
merely gave North American and European governments an excuse to speed
up a process of criminalization that started long before.
The process to criminalize dissent [in North America] was already
underway before the tragic events of Sept. 11. I was at the World Trade
Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, and we knew that the Pentagons
top secret Delta Force had a command post in a hotel and was monitoring
and infilitrating the marches and demonstrations on the street. Five months
later, at the IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., undercover
police were everywhere, and phones were tapped to monitor the Web sites
of 73 activist organizations.
While the police treats dissenters like criminals, they are getting more
legal backing for that treatment from new laws ostensibly intended to
curb terrorists only.
The post-9/11 anti-terrorist legislation in Canada, Bills C-35,
36 and 42, go a long way to entrench the criminalization of dissent in
Clarke explained that business and government officials attending meetings
like the ones in Seattle and Washington are now considered international
protected persons, and interference with these people
when they attend international conferences can now be interpreted as a
terrorist act under the bills.
Bill C-42 adds another dimension: The Minister of Defence can now
declare a certain region, area, vehicle or set of persons as being a military
security zone. So for example in Quebec City, when people were pushing
against the chain-link fence [protecting the trade meetings at the summit
on the Free Trade Area of the Americas], to what extent would that be
classified as a violent attack on official perimeters?
Protest is part of democracy
Another panelist was Reid Morden, currently chair of KPMG Corporate Intelligence,
Inc., and formerly director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service
and deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. He agreed
that protest and dissent are fundamental to democracy, but cautioned that
some of the more violent and radical elements in the protest movement
may be abusing those rights.
When does legitimate advocacy, protest and dissent cross the line
into violence or incitement to violence? That is one of the crucial questions.
One of the things we are lacking in this country is a willingness on both
sides to engage in a reasoned dialogue.
Morden says that extremists are the reason the government is reluctant
to talk to the critics.
This dialogue is absent on the part of the government because they
strongly suspect that, while there are people out there with legitimate
concerns, these people are being stampeded by radicals advocating divisive
and possibly violent courses of action. On the other hand, a lot of people
who are advocating violence have no interest whatsoever in a dialogue,
because that presupposes that there will be compromises somewhere along
the line. Compromise, frankly, does not suit a lot of agendas.
Morden added that the new anti-terrorism legislation does leave considerable
room for abuse by law enforcement.
The provisions [in the anti-terrorism laws] will unfortunately but
inevitably run over into areas which are far outside of terrorism, and
they will be applied [this way] because there is no effective oversight
and control provided for the administration and implementation of these
new laws. It will be left to the courts to ultimately find the right balance.
Former cabinet minister Lynn Verge, who has served as Minister of Justice
and Attorney-General in the Newfoundland House of Assembly, argued that
the Quebec City government had little choice but to impose tough security
at the Summit of the Americas, especially in the wake of the violent anti-globablization
protests in Seattle. Verge, who has been a feminist activist and is currently
a Concordia graduate student in administration in the not-for-profit sector,
said that violent activism is never justified in a democracy.
When there is a real or anticipated threat to people or property,
the police have an obligation to enforce criminal law. In Canada, with
our democratic system of government, independent courts and Charter of
Rights and Freedoms, I believe a noble cause does not justify violent
The keynote speaker at the two-day conference, which was held at Concordia,
was York Universitys Leo Panitch, on The Role of Violence
as a Tool for Change.