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Police make their presence know on the streets of Toronto, Ont. June 22/2010. Fences are strewn throughout the downtown core as part of the G20.Kevin Van Paassen

The Ontario government was more than just heavy-handed and oppressive in giving police wide powers at the G20 Summit in Toronto - it was sneaky, too. With no forewarning, no chance of debate, no time for a court challenge, it quietly declared the downtown area within the security fence an "island of non-constitutionality," as a civil liberties lawyer describes it. The secrecy is nearly as bad as the substance. While the state has a right to prevent violence, what right has it to pre-empt debate and challenge?

True enough, anarchists with rocks, bricks or worse may show up. That is the history of these summit meetings, and this one is not likely to be different. Some protest groups have refused to denounce violence. But none of that means an insurrection is underway. The state needs to find a balance between ensuring public safety, including the safety of summit participants, and allowing for the peaceful expression of dissent.

Police in Canada don't typically have the right to stop people and demand their name and address, and an explanation of their purpose in being there, as they do under the Public Works Protection Act invoked for the summit. (What public works are being protected here, by the way?) Police don't have an automatic right to search people and their vehicles, to refuse permission for them to enter an area and use force to stop them. People can't usually be sentenced to two months in jail for failing to abide by these otherwise non-existent duties. An increased need for security at international summits isn't enough to justify these rules; the right to expression needs protection, too, when the world's leaders are at hand.

The so-called sound cannons purchased by police also involve an attempt to strike a balance between safety and the right to dissent. Police argued that a very loud public-address system may help save lives in dangerous situations. Asked by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to intervene, Mr. Justice David Brown of Ontario Superior Court made a sensible decision in ordering Toronto police yesterday not to use the devices at levels that may damage hearing.

Given all the preparations for the summit, it was unsatisfactory that a suitable court could not be arranged for a bail hearing Thursday of two accused bomb plotters that could accommodate the media.

Government needs to ensure none of its extraordinary measures are seen as a precedent. Canadians may tolerate temporary intrusions on their civil liberties, but will not accept permanent ones.

Government has no civil liberties watchdog as such; it is, however, obliged to act in conformity with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Its behaviour can be challenged in court. That may yet happen if arrests begin to pile up. But in such a short event, the damage to freedom of assembly and expression may have been done. Government itself has a duty to be vigilant, not just against radicalized protesters, but against its own temptation to compromise individual freedom.

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