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Police make their presence known Tuesday on the streets of Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Police make their presence known Tuesday on the streets of Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Adam Radwanski

When it comes to summit security, police answer to no one Add to ...

It's known as the "red zone." But given the extent to which police are being left to their own devices in locking down a large swath of Toronto for the G20, the "grey zone" might be more apt.

The federal government did police and local residents few favours by sticking the summit smack in the middle of downtown. That it's in an area more difficult to secure than other available locations, such as the city's Exhibition grounds, forced more heavy-handed enforcement than should have been necessary.

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But it doesn't help that, as officers are expected to balance security with civil liberties, there's neither legislation nor clear legal precedent specifying what they can and can't do. From the handling of protesters to the requirement of identification to enter public spaces and private homes, it's left to their discretion.

Since each summit is different, there's no choice but to be somewhat ad hoc in handling them. But civil liberties experts argue that it didn't need to be quite this ad hoc.

On that front, the responsibility seems to lie more with a past government than the current one.

Following widespread criticism of how the RCMP handled security at the 1997 APEC meeting in Vancouver and (to a lesser extent) the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, there was pressure on Ottawa to set ground rules for how such events should be policed. Instead, Jean Chrétien's government opted to amend the existing Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act in a vague manner that, if anything, gave police further carte blanche.

"For the purpose of carrying out its responsibility [to secure multi-state conferences]" the amendment stated, "the Royal Canadian Mounted Police may take appropriate measures, including controlling, limiting or prohibiting access to any area to the extent and in a manner that is reasonable in the circumstances."

It's not clear to what extent that legislation was considered as security plans were made for the G20. (A spokesman for the Summit Integrated Security Unit, the joint force headed by the RCMP, was quicker to cite the basic duty to keep the peace.) But it would at least be used to justify any tactics called into question.

Appearing before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee in November, 2001, University of British Columbia law professor Wesley Pue called the amendment "a terribly unfortunate piece of legislation" that "simultaneously reaches too far and is inconclusive." His complaint that it failed to consider how police powers would be balanced with the rights of Canadians to move freely, to express themselves, to assemble, to enjoy their property, and to "go lawfully about one's daily life without interruption or harassment by the police," might strike Torontonians as prescient.

It's debatable whether the law would withstand a court challenge. But part of the reason there's so little precedent on police powers at international gatherings (a problem extensively documented in a study late last year by Dr. Pue and Capilano University professor Robert Diab) is that there's rarely much incentive for anyone to bother with cases after the fact. Probably the most relevant decision came when a Quebec judge ruled against a lawyer's complaint that the Summit of the Americas barriers infringed upon his right to move freely and protest peacefully - this just days before the event's start, when ruling the other way might have forced its cancellation.

In fairness to the RCMP, it seems to have come a long way on securing national events since the APEC days of pepper-spraying students; by most accounts, its conduct around this year's Vancouver Olympics was encouraging. But the G20 is in a whole other realm.

Most Torontonians probably wouldn't fault police for erring on the side of caution. But the fact that they're operating without any real restrictions, however noble individual officers' intentions, could cause a bit of alarm.

For a few days, the related rights questions might get some attention. But history suggests they'll soon be forgotten, at least until next time.

 

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