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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty looks on as Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair speaks during a news conference on January 5, 2006. (Aaron Harris)
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty looks on as Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair speaks during a news conference on January 5, 2006. (Aaron Harris)

Adam Radwanski

Why the 'five metres' mattered Add to ...

Although it got a more positive response than I'd expected, a few people have asked me why I spent so much time last week covering the "five-metre" law that didn't really exist. After all, it wasn't what was used in most of the dubious arrests during the G20, which happened much further away from the security perimeter.

In her Saturday column, Christie Blatchford more or less summed up that line of thinking (though I have no idea if it was even remotely directed at me):

...in Toronto Star lingo, since "the sweeping powers" granted the police via the "secret" law saw them, according to Toronto Chief Bill Blair, arrest exactly one (1) person under the temporary regulation to the Public Works Protection Act, isn't the angst-ridden, hyperbolic debate rendered, as someone brighter than me remarked recently, nothing but an intellectual exercise?

It would quite one thing if the 1,000 folks who were detained on G20 weekend were detained under the temporary regulation. The discussion would be meaningful.

But when it's all said and done, it will turn out that most of those detained were arrested for breach of the peace or to prevent a breach of the peace, which is an arrest authority, not a criminal charge.

In my view, it's a vile authority too, generally speaking easily misused by police, and it may have been misused here as well.

But the point is, it wasn't under the new secret sweeping power, which was only partly secret and not very sweeping. It was under long-established common-law police authorities, such as arresting people for breach of the peace or to prevent a breach of the peace that has yet to take place, that most people were picked up.

You want to be angry about something, be angry about that.

Minor quibbles aside (it seems likely to me that at least two people were arrested under the new law), this seems as good an opportunity as any to explain why holding the province to account over the Public Works Protection Act is more than just an "intellectual exercise."

Admittedly, it happens to be the post-G20 angle I'm best-positioned to cover. Provincial politics is my beat, and this - unlike most of the other things that happened both inside and outside the perimeter - is where Dalton McGuinty's government played a role, and deserves to be held to account. That's especially important because, as I explained toward the end of one of my columns last week, the Liberals' lax handling of the police file has not been restricted to the G20.

But beyond that, it seems to me that the abdication of provincial responsibility in announcing and interpreting the temporary law speaks to a broader phenomenon: the choice of governments, through both their actions and inactions, to give police gratuitous leeway in securing these kinds of international summits.

I wrote about this in the week leading up to the summit, and my former colleagues on the editorial board followed up on it last week. I'll spare you a full rehash of those arguments, and leave it at this: When given a chance early last decade to set out parameters for what police can and can't do to ensure the security of events like the G20, the federal government instead wrote legislation that basically told the police to do whatever they want.

So the message from governments to police, even before the saga over the provincial regulation, was that politicians preferred a no-questions-asked approach to security. Then McGuinty's Liberals took it to new extremes - leaving it to the police to announce a temporary law that could lead to arrests, then failing to publicly correct them when they misinterpreted and misrepresented that law.

As it happened, the province got lucky. If more of the action had been closer to the perimeter, the consequences would have been much greater.

But to some degree, the Liberals' blind faith in the police - including the Premier's unqualified support for Chief Bill Blair in the middle of the controversy - had to reinforce the sense that they had free rein to do as they saw fit, whatever part of downtown Toronto they happened to be in.

Was it the most important story out of the G20? Almost certainly not. But these things didn't all happen in isolation. And if there's any hope that our governments will take more responsibility for the liberties/security balance before the next big international event rolls around, it's necessary to underscore how little responsibility they took this time.

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