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City council asked no hard questions when it was pressured to okay the disastrous facility on Eastern.
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Cheol Joon Baek
It hangs in a frame on the wall of Gord Perks's office without any context: a rudimentary printout of city council vote GM29.22, dated 3/31/10.
There are 26 yea votes and five nay votes recorded on it. And each of the five people responsible for those nays has graced the page with their signature.
I'd first heard about the artifact years ago. But now that we were approaching the third anniversary of the G20 - the fallout of which continues to trickle through our justice system - I thought I'd finally ask to see it.
On the date the vote took place, March 31, 2010, Toronto city council met in camera from 6:06 to 6:50 pm. In some ways, the debate was like every other: rifts emerged between the downtown and the suburbs, between idealists and pragmatists.
In other ways the discussion over the blandly titled item (Property Rental Requirements to Meet Toronto Police Service Operational/Security Obligations for the 2010 G8/G20 Summits) was not like any other that council has had before or since.
It is, after all, not every day that they secretly authorize a lease for a mass prison facility.
The G20 was three months away, and council was told that the police required the city to rent the Toronto Film Studios property at 529 Eastern on their behalf. It was needed, officially, for staging and storage.
But by the end of the discussion, a councillor told me later, "members of council understood what ‘storage' meant: that it was more than just equipment and trucks and vehicles."
The substance of the item - like the debate itself - was confidential; the report explaining the what, where and why of the property acquisition was only disclosed weeks after the late-June summit.
The vote, however, was taken in public, and the item carried 26-5 in favour of executing the lease. (Fourteen members of council were absent.) The dissenters were Janet Davis, Paula Fletcher, Joe Mihevc, Howard Moscoe and Gord Perks.
Afterward, the five had the voting record printed out, signed by each other and framed on the walls of their respective offices, something between a trophy and a horcrux preserving fragments of the spirit of democracy.
"Part of my life plan is to go to my grave without having done anything to build any jails," Perks tells me, looking back on the situation three years later. As someone who's spent decades taking part in protests - and who himself was arrested at the G7's 1988 summit in Toronto - it was a matter of principle.
"I think it's unfortunate that the pressure for these world events causes people to abandon their principles,'' he says.
The "pressure" is a common theme among the several councillors I speak to for this story. Those on both sides of the vote mention an inexorable forward momentum as the date of the event rapidly approached.
"There was really no point at which we could discuss ‘Can we? Should we? Are we going to do this?'" remembers Shelley Carroll, who voted in favour of acquiring the site for the jail. "It was just a done deal. We're takin' it."
She believed what she was hearing from the police chief about how things would be peaceful and orderly, and how the generous capacity of the facility wouldn't even be necessary. (It was ultimately exceeded.)
"Those of us who voted in favour of putting it there didn't know what ‘it' would become," she says. And she wants people to understand this.
"If you were telling me you were setting up a place to treat people with disabilities inhumanely and that it was gonna be a nightmarish freak show, of course, I would've voted differently. I wouldn't have wanted that to exist anywhere. But that wasn't what we were being told."
Both Carroll and Adam Vaughan decided that a single publicized detention facility made more sense than the alternative, which was never articulated but likely would have involved a somewhat arbitrary distribution of prisoners across multiple smaller sites.
"The worry I had, having talked to activists present [at the 2001 Summit of the Americas] in Quebec City, was huge anxiety on the street. The fear people had being detained is that they didn't know where they were going," Vaughan says. "They didn't know there was a detention centre, they didn't know where it was located, they didn't know how to get lawyers and support to that detention centre, and a whole series of issues around that."
He still thinks that settling on a centralized, identified facility was the correct and logical decision.
"But I was also assured that every single standard that the police set for themselves and [that] are set for them around prisoner handling would be met."
Vaughan at the time was a member of the Police Services Board. He had to balance that against his responsibilities as the councillor for Ward 20, which includes the west-central portion of the downtown core in which the vast majority of the summit activity took place.
He admits he was overwhelmed. "Because the event was staged in my ward, I didn't have time to do as much due diligence as I probably should have on [the Eastern] site."
The studio was three wards east of Trinity-Spadina, in Paula Fletcher's ward. She, too, keeps a framed copy of her opposing vote.
And she's still angry and incredulous. Not just about the conditions at the facility, but about the process that compelled council to become quietly complicit in the whole affair.
"It wasn't council that made it secret," she emphasizes. "It was forced on us as a security matter - a national security matter. That's what I remember. And so we were constantly told we can't ask questions, we can't know things, we can't speak about it, we can't anything. It was a very strange time, surreal, and one that I think was a low point in our city."