June 21, 2011
Peter Small/Toronto Star
Farrah McBride went to the G20 protests in downtown Toronto, upset by news of vandals smashing windows.
But the assistant manager at a restaurant supply store was transformed from spectator to prisoner when police arrested virtually everyone in front of the Hotel Novotel on The Esplanade on the night of Saturday, June 26, 2010.
She says she was held, handcuffed, at the temporary Eastern Ave. detention centre without adequate water, food or her correct anti-anxiety medicine.
She suffered a severe anxiety attack before she was released without charge after 18 hours.
“It opened my eyes. I never imagined this would ever happen in Canada,” says McBride, 29. “I totally lost respect for police. I can’t even look at them now.”
More than 1,100 people were held over the Toronto G20 weekend, the largest mass arrest in Canadian history.
Only 317 people were charged with summit-related criminal offences.
And of those, 187 have seen their charges withdrawn, stayed or dismissed, according to statistics released by the Ontario attorney general’s ministry Monday. Just 24 pleaded guilty.
“It’s a classic example of police overcharging,” says lawyer Clayton Ruby, whose law firm represents three G20 detainees suing police.
It’s a well-known game in Ontario, where defendants are told: “We’ll withdraw the charges that have no foundation if you plead guilty to charges that are in fact defendable (by police),” Ruby says.
One solution is to have Crowns screen charges before they are laid, as occurs in British Columbia, Ruby says.
Normally, 30 per cent of all charges are withdrawn or stayed by the prosecution, says University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach. The fact that the G20 figure is double that raises questions about the arrests, he says.
Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says demonstrators were targeted while simply exercising their democratic rights.
“Many charges were bogus,” she says.
Charges against 100 demonstrators, mainly from Quebec, sleeping in a University of Toronto gym on Sunday, June 27, were later withdrawn because police barged in without a warrant — an elementary legal error, Des Rosiers says.
In addition, 39 defendants took diversion, in some cases making charitable donations to have their charges dropped even if they felt they did nothing wrong, she says. Eleven entered peace bonds.
Moreover, several defendants endured long delays in their cases because Crowns took hours to review video evidence, she adds. “You don’t arrest people and then say, ‘I’m going to watch video and see if I have any evidence to tie you to this,” she says.
Des Rosiers says the best way to get to the bottom of what went wrong at G20 is to hold a full public inquiry, an option rejected by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Crown spokesperson Brendan Crawley maintains it was the prosecution’s duty to carefully review the “substantial” G20 evidence before deciding whether to proceed.
Toronto police deny they laid too many charges.
They maintain they acted only on reasonable grounds and that they were legally justified in entering U of T without a warrant, “based on information that was received.”
Furthermore, the food and water given prisoners at the Eastern Ave. detention centre was similar to that at any police station, police say.
Emilie Guimond-Bélanger rode on a chartered bus from Montreal to demonstrate peacefully for economic and women’s rights.
Instead, she spent two cold, sleepless nights in custody, struggling to go to the bathroom out of sight of male guards, enduring two strip searches and begging for enough food to counter nausea.
The 21-year-old Laval University student and prominent member of Quebec solidaire, a left-wing political party, was one of the 100 people arrested at the U of T gym.
She was charged with conspiracy to commit an offence before being released and ordered, as a bail condition, to get out of Toronto.
“You are being treated exactly like criminals really, but every time you’re telling yourself in your head: ‘I’ve done nothing wrong,’” she recalls.
The charge was withdrawn four months later.
Kevin Tilley, a lawyer with the Movement Defence Committee, which provided free initial legal advice to defendants, says he was surprised by the large number held for bail hearings — far more than seemed warranted.
The vast majority would normally have been released from the police station on a promise to appear in court, he says.
“It was chaotic,” Tilley says.
“We expected maybe 100 if there was a mass arrest-type situation, but no one ever anticipated anything like this.”
In addition, the Crown seemed to seek far stricter bail conditions than necessary, he says.
The Crown’s Crawley responds that bail terms Ontario prosecutors seek match the facts of each case.
Darius Mirshahi and Chris Bowen were surrounded by police in separate arrests on June 27, and charged with conspiracy.
The anarchist hip-hop performers, who go by the name Testament and Illogik, respectively, think they were arrested mainly for their anti-G20 video, called “Crash the Meeting.” Viewed 55,000 times on YouTube, it depicts vandalism and urges resistance.
They were released on bail conditions barring them from meeting, which meant suspending their performance group, Test Their Logik, until charges were stayed five months later.
“They shut us down,” says Mirshahi.
“Conspiracy charges are basically thought crimes,” says Bowen. “Basically our thoughts and words are enough to throw us in jail.”
Peter Gill, 25, a Vancouver support care worker, says Ontario Provincial Police officers roughly arrested him as he walked away from a peaceful demonstration.
He was handed to two Toronto police officers, who threatened to beat him up and drove fast in their squad car, slamming on the brakes so the handcuffed prisoner banged his head on the transparent divider, he says.
They would say: “We’re going to pull over here and beat the s—t out of you and pretend you were resisting arrest.”
Toronto police, when contacted for a response, would not comment on specific allegations.
Gill was charged with possessing explosives and weapons. But all he carried were harmless items like snacks and ear plugs, he says. Charges were withdrawn five months later.
Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young says what happened at the G20 is not unusual; it’s “low visibility policing.”
Police hold people then release them with minor or no charges to control the streets, he says.
At the G20, however, it happened to a more affluent demographic, and in the glare of publicity, he says.
“It’s a wake-up call for the middle class, who are rarely targeted for street policing,” he says.
Toronto police maintain, however, they are justified, to preserve the peace, in temporarily holding people they believe are about to engage in criminal activity.
U of T’s Roach says one problem with policing large public events is it’s multi-jurisdictional.
At the G20, the RCMP, OPP, and the Toronto police were involved, assisted by officers from several Canadian cities. “It’s a jurisdictional mess,” Roach says.
There has to be a centralized accountability mechanism like a public inquiry, he says.
“Policing is becoming much more networked, much more interconnected,” he says. “We can’t let the accountability lag behind.”
G20 By The Numbers
1,100: Approximate number of people arrested during last summer’s G20 summit
317: Number of people charged with criminal offences related to the G20 summit
187: Criminal charges withdrawn since the G20 summit
24: Number of people who have pleaded guilty of G20-related crimes since the summit
58: Per cent of G20-related charges withdrawn, stayed or dismissed (187 cases)
39: Defendants who took advantage of diversion programs and had their charges dropped
11: Defendants subject to peace bonds
9: Number of people erroneously listed as charged
Source: Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General