a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

More thoughts on the Toronto G20 Summit

By now most of us -- at least those who weren't arrested or didn't suffer property damage -- are growing weary of the Toronto G20 Summit. But fallout from the event isn't likely to go away for a long time. Please bear with me.

What was interesting to me was how preoccupation with security demonstrated some traits of modern government that Canadians may not like to talk about but should.

Secrecy: Let's face it. Secrecy is second nature to those in government, no matter what the Charter of Rights, Access to Information Act and provincial freedom of information laws say. Transparency and accountability may be buzz words politicians and civil servants use constantly. But the fact is that public officials, at any level of government, will default to secrecy in a stressful situation.

In the days leading up to the summit, the Ontario government temporarily invoked the Public Works Protection Act, a relic of the Second World War, to give police extra powers to ensure the site perimeter would be secure, and then said nothing. Even the Mayor of Toronto first learned about this draconian measure through the newspapers.

When word did leak out, the media reported that this statute gave police the power to search anyone within five metres of the perimeter fence and demand identification. Now we are told the police did not have such powers at all. Neither the police nor the Ontario government made any effort during the summit to clarify what the law did or say. Withholding information like that borders on lying.

Rights of the state trump yours: Regardless of what the Charter might say, the state acts like it has virtually unlimited rights of expropriation for a higher good. This is why Maher Arar spent a year in a Syrian prison. The state expropriated his life in the interests of nationals security. This is why innocent people find themselves on no-fly lists with little recourse.

And this is why police scooped up hundreds of innocent people and incarcerated them without charge on the weekend of June 26-27. Apparently, the concern was that organized anarchists, known as the Black Bloc, were using crowds to shield themselves. So the state responded by taking away the crowds and ordinary people's civil liberties for several hours, or days in some cases.

Public officials know full well most of those arrested were guilty of not crime. That is why they have suddenly become reluctant to say anything publicly. For the most part, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has been left on his own to defend an unwritten policy.

Rights of Inquiry: Governments only call inquiries into their own conduct when there is an overwhelming compelling reason. That is why it took 25 years for Canadians to find out what they always suspected about the Air India tragedy. That said, Canadians should persist in demanding one into the Toronto summit -- regardless of government reluctance.

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