In early June of this year, Chris Shaw, a Vancouver ophthalmologist, professor and writer, was approached by two police officers who wanted to discuss his book, Five Ring Circus, Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games. Shaw declined the invitation.
Two things stand out about this little vignette: first, that Olympic security police seem to have a distorted notion of acceptable policing in a democracy, and second, that a good citizen can still prove them wrong. Canadians have much to celebrate in the fact that our writers can still decline to discuss their work with the police, but we had best be wary when police try to push that boundary.
Shaw was not the only one approached by Vanoc cops that week. According to a lawyer for the Olympic Resistance Network, officers of the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit of the RCMP visited 14 of the group’s members “at or near their home or workplace,” where they made “thinly veiled threats” to “interfere with their employment or personal lives.”
A week later, Shaw was scheduled to speak at the annual Play the Game conference at Coventry University in England. Entering by London’s Heathrow Airport, he was detained for an hour by customs authorities, who wanted details on the purpose of his visit. Many who have been swallowed by Heathrow’s busy maw would scoff at the notion that one hour in customs constitutes detention, but the question arises, why Shaw, in particular? Was he flagged by Canadian police as an Olympic dissident?
Delegates at the conference seemed to come to that interpretation of events when they composed the Coventry Declaration, calling on Canada to “state in unequivocal language that all Canadians and persons visiting Canada will have their right to: 1) Security of the person, and 2) freedom of expression respected, protected, and unimpinged, as Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees.”
This week, Vancouver city councillor Ellen Woodsworth moved to have council endorse the Coventry Declaration. During deliberations, Olympic security chief Bud Mercer told councillors that in order to stave off the risk of “criminal protests” at the 2010 Games, “We have to make contact and we have to open dialogue.”
As a senior member of the RCMP, Mercer may never have enjoyed the experience of a visit by police to his workplace or home to open dialogue about his possible future participation in illegal activities, but with a bit of imagination, he may be able to see that it’s not the way most members of the public would choose to make contact with the authorities. He might even be able to guess that it doesn’t look very good to the neighbours, and even less so to the boss.
The police who conducted those visits could probably understand, too, that most citizens would prefer not to be visited by police at work. In fact, if anyone in the ISU from Mercer on down doesn’t get that these visits constitute police harassment, then somebody at the RCMP training centre is falling down on the job. In the future, if Olympic security police want to open dialogue with a community group, they might consider a telephone call or an e-mail, requesting a meeting.
To strengthen his point that “criminal protests” are a possibility during the Vancouver Olympics, Mercer showed council a couple of cartoons he pulled off the internet. One showed the Olympic mascots carrying Molotov cocktails, the other showed a banner reading “riot 2010.” There’s no question that the Games have stirred strong feelings in Vancouver and elsewhere, but if a couple of cartoons is the best evidence the senior security cop can come up with of impending criminality, it makes a poor excuse for police harassment of writers and activists.
Let us not get carried away, the harassment of a group of Olympic dissenters doesn’t make Canada a police state, it doesn’t mean that we’re on a slippery slope to fascism, or that jackboots on the street are the next logical step. What the ISU’s actions amount to is a bunch of cops pushing the limits of acceptable police conduct in a democracy. There’s no occasion for panic, all that’s required is to nip such conduct in the bud before it gets out of hand.
Vancouver city council put off voting on the Coventry Declaration to give time for public input. Let’s hope that we Canadians care enough about our rights and freedoms that we input a loud and determined call to end police harassment of writers and activists, and present Canada to the world as what we imagine ourselves to be—a free country where freedom of expression is guaranteed by law.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.