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March 28, 2002 Balance between dissent and order difficult to achieve



by Sylvain Comeau

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 Concordia’s 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; he’s 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 Pentagon’s 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 this country.”

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 means.”

The keynote speaker at the two-day conference, which was held at Concordia, was York University’s Leo Panitch, on “The Role of Violence as a Tool for Change.”