The fine line between the right to protest and public safety

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on May 21, 2018

It would be hard to forget the G8/G20 riots in Toronto in 2010. Or similar mass violence at the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999.  Commercial properties smashed and vandalised.  Police cars destroyed.  The arrests of hundreds.  People kept in cages by the authorities.  A pretty site it was not.

World events such as the G8 (now G7) meeting of world leaders attract a lot of attention, and not for reasons that are always positive.  Many decry the amount of money spent on presidents and prime ministers.  Others are unhappy with the hijacking of resorts (Whistler, Kananaskis, the Musokas) to the detriment of many, especially the locals who are often inconvenienced if not chased from their homes temporarily.  And still others complain that what we get for all this upheaval is not worth it (who needs another photo op?).

Canada is the G7 host this year and the gathering of the leaders of member countries will take place in La Malbaie in June.  In preparation for this event officials are moving heaven and earth and, in the eyes of critics, clamping down on civil rights and liberties.  Protesters will be forced to wave their placards and chant their slogans 1.5 km away in a ‘free speech zone’, although most of them will likely be in Quebec City (148 km away), thus making it unlikely that their complaints will be heard by the very people they feel should be listening.  In this vein, is it hard to understand why there are those that believe their legitimate views are being sidelined?  After all, is the G7 not a collection of democracies where freedom of speech, assembly and the right to express dissent is sacrosanct?

We should, as Canadians and as citizens of a Western liberal society welcome different viewpoints and enable these differences to be registered and debated.  When it comes to summitry, however, there are additional considerations.

The first is the safety and protection of the visiting leaders.  As the country responsible for welcoming the heads of the world’s most important nations Canada has to ensure that nothing untoward happens to them while they are with us.  Should someone like the US President be attacked – or worse assassinated – you can imagine the hell to pay. This is why Ottawa is spending so much on security.

Secondly, previous international fora  have been disrupted by groups that are not interested in peaceful demonstration and making a point but rather causing extensive damage and mayhem. I am referring here to the Black Bloc and other anarchist groups for whom violence is an end in itself.  I am not suggesting that legitimate organisations are responsible for the actions of these losers but true protest groups have to understand that security officials cannot let the anarchists hold sway.  It is unfortunate that the ‘raging grannies’ get swept up with the balaclava-adorned hooligans, but what is the alterative?

There is indeed much to find fault with the policies of G7 nations, especially the US under President Trump.  Canadians and others have a right to show their displeasure, a right that we have enshrined in our charters and constitutions over centuries.  In truth, however, is a G7 summit the best place to do so?  These are highly staged events, planned months and years in advance and little is left to chance(although breaking events can throw a wrench into even the best laid plans).  The leaders’ conference is held in a bubble anyway, minimising any likely effect on the mindset of those leaders.  There are many more opportunities to effect change.

The nature of political violence, whether it is terrorism or not, has changed the calculus of how we organise international meetings.  It is unlikely we will go back to a time where the average Joe or Jill gets close access to their prime ministers and presidents and gives them an earful.  The days of Jean Chretien throttling a protestor on Parliament Hill are over.   Get used to it.  We all have a duty to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire: we just have to come up with creative ways to do it that do not involve crashing the G7.

Phil Gurski worked as a senior strategic analyst at CSIS from 2001-2013, specializing in al-Qaeda/Islamic State-inspired violent extremism and radicalization and as a senior special adivser at Public Safety Canada from 2013 until his retirement from the civil service in May 2015.

Phil Gurski

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