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Edited by W. Wesley Pue UBC Press, 241 pages, $39.95

Remember APEC?

Nearly 2½ years have passed since the dramatic events of Nov. 25, 1997, when police pepper-sprayed protesters as part of an all-out battle plan to shelter APEC leaders who had gathered at the University of British Columbia for their annual summit.

Since then, memories have dimmed. Issues have flickered out, the media's once-keen thirst for news slaked by the inexorable boredom of an inquiry that seems to drag on and on and on. By the time inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes makes his report, global warming may well have melted the polar ice cap.

All this makes the appearance of Pepper in Our Eyes: The APEC Affair particularly timely. The thoughtful, wide-ranging collection of essays, edited by UBC legal historian W. Wesley Pue, is a welcome reminder that police behaviour at APEC '97 poses fundamental questions that go far beyond the mere matter of who got pepper-sprayed and why. They strike at the heart of our democratic form of government and respect for human rights.

Among the contributors are legal experts, economists, a police officer, TV reporter Terry Milewski and Gerald Morin, who explains in detail for the first time exactly why he resigned as head of the first inquiry panel set up to probe protester complaints. Most, not all, are critical of what went on.

The book cites a number of troubling incidents, none nearly as well known as the celebrated footage of Staff-Sergeant Hugh Stewart emptying his canister of pepper spray on a group of passive protesters and CBC cameraman Robb Douglas.

For instance, how many Canadians know that:

Before the protest, a student activist was taken into custody on a spurious charge, later dropped, of assaulting a police officer by shouting into his ear with a megaphone.

A Tibetan flag was hauled down from a campus flagpole.

Law student Craig Jones was wrestled to the ground and arrested outside the police security zone for refusing to take down hand-written signs about human rights that could be seen from the leaders' motorcade route.

A large blanket bearing a political slogan was removed from a student residence balcony.

Women arrested at the scene were later strip-searched by police. Men arrested were not.

Those taken into custody ahead of the main campus protests were released only after signing an undertaking to stay away from further demonstrations, a demand police later admitted was illegal.

Pue suggests the RCMP draped a Charter-free zone over the campus, where ordinary rights and freedoms did not apply.

What makes this far more serious than a normal yarn of police action and protester reaction, contributors say, is the possible involvement of the Prime Minister's Office and perhaps even Jean Chrétien himself. Were the RCMP motivated totally by security concerns, as they claimed, or by zealousness to prevent the likes of former Indonesian president Suharto or Chinese President Jiang Zemin from being embarrassed?

If the latter, did that direction come from the PMO, putting police improperly at the beck and call of politics? Pue writes: "The possibility that Canada's most senior political figures deliberately set in motion a chain of events that ended in the violation of the fundamental rights of large numbers of Canadians is disturbing."

Documents disclosed at the APEC inquiry appear to indicate at least a circumstantial link between the PMO and the RCMP. In a strongly worded essay, civil libertarian Andrew Irvine refers to a seemingly telling dispatch from RCMP Superintendent Trevor Thompsett to another high-ranking officer. It reads: "Common sense tells us we do not want banners nor would the PMO's office. Having said that, banners are not a security issue. They are a political issue. . . . I'm shooting from the hip here but taking them down is touching with someone else's property that is not a security concern."

Subsequent government actions have not resembled those of an innocent. Applications to fund complainants' legal costs were twice turned down before a third request succeeded; Chrétien rejected an invitation from commissioner Hughes to testify, and the PM's former communications director, Peter Donolo, complained to the CBC ombudsman about Terry Milewski's "biased" reporting of APEC events.

The book also accuses Shirley Heafey, head of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, in Ottawa, of direct interference in the workings of the first inquiry panel. The charge is levelled in a devastating critique of the process by ex-panel chairman Gerald Morin.

According to Morin, Heafey urged his panel to call off attempts to have the complainant's legal fees paid. Over dinner, she told him she was "under a lot of pressure" from Ottawa. Heafey then presented Morin, a Saskatchewan lawyer, with a prepared statement to be read out at the next hearing, closing the door to the funding issue. He refused. But concern over "the mere attempt to control the panel in this manner" led Morin and his panelists to join the almost comically long line of resignations connected to the inquiry.

Pepper in Our Eyes is a valuable addition to the APEC debate. It urges us to look past the protesters' motley appearance and causes, focusing instead on the firm principle that police should never be deployed for political purposes.

The words of George Orwell, quoted in the book, ring true: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." Globe and Mail writer Rod Mickleburgh was at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit when a question from Nardwuar the Human Serviette prompted Jean Chrétien to blurt out: "For me, pepper, I put it on my plate."