Chris Lewis, head of the Ontario Provincial Police, is being accused of undermining the rule of law. A respected judge, David Brown of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, has questioned the force’s “passivity” in its delay in enforcing his injunction meant to end an aboriginal blockade on a rail line between Toronto and Montreal. That delay, Judge Brown said, “leads me to doubt that a future exists in this province for the use of court injunctions in cases of public demonstrations.”
Judge Brown’s frustration is understandable, and widely shared by the public. But he is not standing in Mr. Lewis’s shoes. Mr. Lewis is determined to use his discretion wisely. He heads a force that made mistakes at a 1995 native occupation at Ipperwash Provincial Park – mistakes that led to a police officer shooting an unarmed native man, Dudley George. Those mistakes occurred after the premier, Mike Harris, said, “I want the fucking Indians out of the park.” The province later spent three years and $25.6-million on a judicial inquiry into where things went wrong.
We don’t understand what the protesters who block roads or rail lines expect to accomplish. They can only undermine support for their cause among Canadians. A co-founder of the Idle No More movement has said as much. The justice system – including judges and police – should stand up to these protesters.
But edicts are easy. The OPP have multiple risks to confront. “I’d rather be criticized for a decision to not jeopardize, take or lose lives than for taking unnecessary aggressive action that undoubtedly will,” Mr. Lewis said, in a videotape circulated to OPP members and available to the public on YouTube. Aboriginal protesters, he said, could “paralyze this country” through blockades if they choose – meaning that a careful, negotiated approach is the best one.
The Ontario Court of Appeal was faced with a similar dispute over aboriginal blockades in Caledonia in 2006. It said the police and the Crown, not judges, are in the best position to determine how to do their job. “The immediate enforcement and prosecution of violations of the law may not always be the wise course of action or the course of action that best serves the public interest.”
Canada is lucky to have police leaders like Chris Lewis, who understand that authority is more than brute force, and that police need to move carefully, lest they undermine the rule of law even as they try to uphold it.