The G20 mass arrest fiasco: A wartime denial of rights during peacetime

Last May, the Ontario cabinet met and passed a regulation that granted police unprecedented power to arrest and search citizens without warrant during late June's G20 Summit. They didn't debate the law in the Legislature. In fact, the McGuinty Liberal government went out of their way to hide the new law from citizens who would be affected.

Premier Dalton McGuinty hasn't apologized for this and, until recently, he defended his decision. Last week, Ontario ombudsman André Marin delivered a stern wake up call to the premier and it's now up to Ontarians to demand a full public inquiry -- something Ontario New Democrats have called for since the day after the G20 Summit wrapped up.

In his report, the ombudsman singled out the government for its role in a "mass violation of rights" during peacetime. Marin didn't mince words in describing Regulation 233/10 -- the secret law enacted by the government to give police extraordinary powers such as arbitrary arrests and detainments as well as unreasonable searches and seizures. He called it "illegal" and "unconstitutional." He called the resulting infringement on freedom of expression "unjustifiable in a free and democratic society."

Worse yet, is the underhanded way the government tried to sneak this measure past an unsuspecting public. By now, most people are aware that the government chose to bury the announcement in an obscure official government publication rather than come clean with it in public. Marin said this created a "trap" for responsible citizens seeking to express legitimate dissent. I would go one step further and call the government's tactic the worst kind of political cynicism and cowardice.

Marin also noted that the government allowed the public to believe that the law provided police with the power to demand identification and detain anyone within five metres of the G20 security fences. Two days after releasing his report, the ombudsman felt compelled to issue another statement. He rejected organized efforts by interested parties to downplay the significance of the secret law.  

He wrote: "While there may have been only two arrests using Regulation 233/10, many people were detained, searched, questioned, and redirected under its authority. That regulation played a huge role in the violations of civil liberties that occurred."

Despite the ombudsman's scathing report, Premier McGuinty has stubbornly refused to apologize for his government's decision-making. He admitted that the Liberals botched their communication strategy on the secret law and cited "good intentions," but in the end he refused to accept any culpability. He preferred to allow his spin doctors to try and change the channel.

But concerned citizens aren't buying it.

Back in November, I stood in the Legislature and explained why the people of Ontario deserve a full public inquiry into the G20 fiasco -- a full public inquiry with a broad scope, binding recommendations, and powers of subpoena. A patchwork set of investigations cannot get to the bottom of what happened on the streets of Toronto during the G20. None of the six separate reviews that have been called has the mandate or jurisdiction or impartiality to ask fundamental questions that need answers.

Only a full public inquiry will have the teeth to probe and report on the decisions and actions of the government and law enforcement. Only a full public inquiry can provide a complete account of how more than a billion taxpayer dollars were spent and whether that money was well spent. Only a full public inquiry will explain how the basic rights and freedoms of Ontarians were compromised that weekend in June.

The premier states that the G20 was an important global meeting as justification for the government's decision to implement illegal and unconstitutional measures. He's right -- it was an important meeting.

But that's precisely why it was so essential that Ontarians have a right to gather and voice their views about what was being discussed and decided. The decisions made at the G20 summits affect our lives. Dissenting views need to be heard. When those voices are silenced we all lose out. And when those voices are silenced by secret measures that violate our laws and our Constitution, we need to take stock and take action or risk losing the freedoms we often take for granted.

After it was debated, the NDP's G20 Inquiry Act, was voted down by Liberal and Progressive Conservative MPPs. But the debate shouldn't end there. Those of us concerned by what went on during the G20 need to continue to put pressure on the McGuinty government to do the right thing and call a full public inquiry.

The Premier badly wants the G20 nightmare to go away. We can't let that happen without a public inquiry.

Andrea Horwath is the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party and the MPP for Hamilton Centre.

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