When it comes to policing issues, city councillors usually err on the side of Fantino -- as in Chief Julian Fantino. So it's a cause for serious concern that amidst a series of the largest anti-war demos in Canadian history, Toronto's police services board adopted a proposal last Thursday (March 27) that could put a frightening curb on protests.
The final proposal, if adopted by council, would require permits "for any demonstration which takes part in whole or in part on public property."
And would automatically disqualify "any individual or group with a history of violence, damage or abuse... from obtaining a permit or participating in a demonstration for a period of at least two years."
"It is only with measures such as these that the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, which are central to a democratic society, can be monitored and fostered," says Fantino in his report to the board.
All permits for demos that require street closures, which are currently handled by different city departments, would also be vetted by police.
Police services board chair Norm Gardner says, "We just want to make sure the chief has an opportunity to do some planning."
Fantino seems to have another motivation in mind -- namely, keeping tabs on the demos organized by "anti-government" or "anti-establishment" groups.
As he says in his report to the board, "Many go to great lengths to keep the specifics of their plan secret."
The fact that the police services board conceded to such sweeping regulation is disturbing when you consider that of 283 demonstrations in 2001, only 13 required the deployment of the riot squad.
Stephen McCammon, associate counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says the board's proposals, if approved by council, will "thwart the legitimate interests of lawful and peaceful protestors without discouraging any of the folks who show up to cause serious trouble.
"Some of the proposals the chief's talking about are powers that would intimidate lots of ordinary people (and keep them) from coming out.
"I think they're going to say, "I'm not a hardcore political activist. I care about the issues of the day, but if there's a risk that I'll have to pay a personal price for coming out, then maybe I won't.'
"It's going to scare away the middle-of-the-road folks who often make the difference when it comes to getting the numbers out there."
Board vice-chair Gloria Lindsay-Luby acknowledges that while it would be "desirable" for protest groups to take out permits, "this is not always possible because there's not enough lead time."
She supported Fantino's proposal anyway, as well as his request to the feds for stiffer penalties for protestors who break the law or wear disguises at demonstrations. "Some of these people just want to make trouble," she says.
Justice Minister Martin Cauchon has already turned down a similar request from the board, saying the current laws are strong enough.
In a June 2002 letter to chair Gardner included in last week's report to the board, Cauchon writes, "Canadians enjoy a constitutionally protected right to associate and speak freely."
Cauchon goes on to point out that "many police services in Canada are reviewing their operational policies and procedures in relation to crowd control in order to create greater trust and cooperation with demonstrators."
Now there's a concept.
But it's an election year in Toronto, and politicos like nothing better than to be seen to be giving police the tools they want to keep the streets safe -- even though Toronto may not have the constitutional right to push this bylaw through.
Councillor Olivia Chow thinks that won't necessarily prevent the transportation committee, which is scheduled to debate the proposal April 28, from adopting it.
"Remember the big hoopla we had on the postering bylaw?" asks Chow, who is also a member of the Coalition to Stop the War organizing committee. "Our best lawyer said it wasn't going to stand up (in court), but that didn't keep councillors from supporting it."
STOP THE WAR
Thursday, April 3 -- Storytellers for peace. 7:30 pm. Trinity-St. Paul's, 427 Bloor West. $5 suggested donation.
Friday, April 4 -- Peace meeting with British political analyst Tariq Ali and Svend Robinson. 6:30 pm. OISE, 252 Bloor West. $10.
Saturday, April 5 -- Coalition to Stop the War rally and march. Noon. Dundas Square, Yonge and Dundas.
Tuesday, April 8 -- Eyewitness report from Baghdad. 7 pm. Lillian H. Smith Library, 239 College.
Thursday, April 10 -- Create a tulip art installation with Toronto Public Space Peace Gardeners. 7:30 pm. The Centre, 1558 Bloor West.