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Toronto Police chief Bill Blair prepares for a press conference at police headquarters in Toronto Tuesday, June 29, 2010. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)
Toronto Police chief Bill Blair prepares for a press conference at police headquarters in Toronto Tuesday, June 29, 2010. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Black Bloc interrupted soldier's cortège: Blair Add to ...

The final chapter of the repatriation for Sergeant Jimmy MacNeil last Friday had to be cut short outside the coroner's office in Toronto when Black Bloc anarchists tried to break through police lines to attack.

The revelation came during an hour-long interview Wednesday with Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, during which he also confessed he is worried about how the events of last weekend may have affected the "public trust" the force must have with its citizens.

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At the time the cortège carrying Sgt. MacNeil's body was arriving at the coroner's office on Grosvenor Street, just two short blocks north of College Street, a group of about 30 demonstrators dressed in black moved out of a crowd of 2,000 who had massed in front of police headquarters on College.

"The Black Bloc was here and they charged up the thing [laneway] as a matter of fact the repatriation was kind of interrupted," Chief Blair said.

"My public order guys ran through the lines that we had to close off the alley that they were trying to get up [to Grosvenor]with."

The coroner's office is the last stop on a soldier's return home, and Chief Blair always tries to attend the solemn ceremony. His usual practice is to accompany the fallen soldier's 'escort officer' and offer condolences and thanks to the families.

Instead, he said, he had to tell Sgt. MacNeil's escort, "Sorry, it's over, get out of here because it's too dangerous."

The protest last Friday was the first major one of the G20 weekend, with demonstrators meeting first in a downtown park and then starting a rolling protest through city streets.

Chief Blair said he was hoping they would "get the repatriation in" before the protest arrived at College Street, but the two events coincided.

"Then they're [the black bloc]trying to charge up Yonge Street, trying to charge up the alley [which runs just west of Yonge north to Grosvenor] trying to loop around the other side up Bay Street, and we're trying to block them from coming up here."

He was answering a question about the confusion over a temporary regulation designating the area of the G20 Summit as a place where the Public Works Protection Act would apply, allowing police to arrest those refusing a search or to show identification.

It was only in this context that he mentioned the repatriation ceremony.

The Black Bloc group, he said, was "clearly evident in the centre" of that protest. "I'm looking down on it, my people are taking pictures of this thing. You can very clearly see the formation of this Black Bloc group in the centre."

The backlash against the way police conducted themselves has been bizarre, with critics first accusing them of being too lenient, then too harsh, then of abusing their authority in arresting or detaining hundreds.

Spectacular claims have emerged, among them lesbians alleging that they were segregated in the temporary detention centre and a female filmmaker from Montreal who says she was threatened with "gang rape" there.

Chief Blair has borne much criticism personally, with some commentators this week accusing him either of lying or misleading the media and the public about the temporary regulation.

"Suggestions that the chief of police would lie is very problematic in my respectful opinion," he said. "That's a real problem for me."

He explained in minute detail the extraordinary pressures of Friday last, which began with a front-page story describing "sweeping powers" secretly passed by the provincial government.

He knew, he said, that the legal team of the Integrated Security Unit, the multi-force agency in charge of summit security, had been looking at the "various legal authorities" and that at various times the lawyers considered seeking amendments to the federal Foreign Missions Act and were examining police common-law authorities.

The purpose of the exercise was to ensure that police had the legal authority to take the actions they expected they would have to use, and that they would be acting lawfully.

Ultimately, he was briefed by police lawyer Jerome Wiley - he wasn't part of the ISU team, but was himself briefed by other lawyers.

The Chief reported to his civilian-led police services board. "I said they're seeking it [the authority] but I don't know if they'll get it. Quite frankly, it's not on my radar" - or in his bailiwick.

In the end, the province passed the regulation on June 2, without any announcement, and it was published on the government's e-Laws website two weeks later.

The section is virtually incomprehensible. The critical paragraph reads: "The area, within the area described in Schedule 1, that is within five metres of a line drawn as follows: Beginning at the south end of the walkway that is located immediately west of the John Street Pumping Station and runs between Lake Shore Boulevard West and the bus parking lot of the Rogers Centre; then north along the west edge of that walkway to the bus parking lot of the Rogers Centre; then west along the south edge of the bus parking lot of the Rogers Centre; then west along the south edge of the bus parking lot of the Rogers Centre to the west edge of the driveway running between the parking lot and Bremner Boulevard; then north along the west edge of that driveway and ending at Bremner Boulevard."

What Chief Blair was told, understandably, was "the fence and five metres out." He Googled it, to get the regulation number, and saw the prominent 'five metres' reference.

He spent 40 minutes Friday morning answering questions from reporters, actually handing out the only copy he had of the two-page regulation and repeated what he had been told. "It was my honest belief that I was telling people the truth."

About lunchtime, Mr. Wiley informed him, "We have a problem. The lawyers from the ISU are now saying what you said was wrong."

The Chief's first concern was to get the message to the troops; he ordered Mr. Wiley to immediately send out a clarification. "I want everybody on the line, right now, to be told the limits of their authority," he said. "And he prepared it and out it went."

"I confess," Chief Blair said, "my attention turns elsewhere" - to the protest now rolling through downtown, the crowd of 2,000 outside his headquarters with the Black Bloc group within, the repatriation.

More importantly, he said, "Quite obviously, the PWPA by Friday afternoon is irrelevant to our security measures at this point, because we're now dealing with a far different situation."

A review has shown, he said, that only one person - of the hundreds arrested over the weekend - was detained under the PWPA and he was stopped inside the security fence, so the arrest was legal. Another person was arrested at Union Station, an area always covered by the act, not the new regulation.

Tuesday night, Chief Blair attended a PRIDE event downtown, and was greeted by protesters shouting "Shame! Shame!"

"I've done a lot of work in that community and with diversity in Toronto," he said.

"One of my greatest concerns about this - there's a lot of noise right now, but in the longer term, we've worked really hard to demonstrate [our belief in]human rights and civil rights …We've worked really hard to build respectful relationships with people with whom we've not always had great relationships.

"I'm very concerned about losing that," he said.

"The trust between us is absolutely critical to keep in the city and it's also the right way to do business, and so losing any element of that trust, any setback in that, any suggestion that we're less than committed to maintaining and upholding human rights and civil rights, of treating diverse communities and marginalized people disrespectful is really fundamental.

"So we have a lot of work to do."

Though he said he has been receiving "overwhelming reassurance from a lot of really decent people in this city" that the public trust hasn't been damaged, he said it's fragile and can't be taken for granted.

His hope, he said, is "that people will rely on the record."

Normally, Chief Blair goes to several PRIDE events, because "I have friends in that community and I like to demonstrate my support for them." One of his favourites is the church service held by Reverend Brent Hawkes at the Metropolitan Community Church on the morning of the big parade.

"I bring my wife and kids, and we go down. I really like Brent Hawkes and I admire him tremendously. That's always been an important thing for me to attend."

But after Tuesday night, he said, "I am concerned that if I attend and detract from their celebration … if I thought I would go there and detract from what Brent's doing on Sunday, I'll have to stay away."

What a coup de grâce for the Black Bloc, and the hysterics surrounding them, that would be.

cblatchford@globeandmail.com

 

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