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Riot police wearing gas masks get ready prepare themselves on Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto on June 26, 2010. (Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Riot police wearing gas masks get ready prepare themselves on Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto on June 26, 2010. (Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Boyd Erman

Police G20 tactics give Toronto a black eye Add to ...

So much for using the Group of 20 summit as a showcase for Toronto as a place to live and do business.

The security forces' handling of the weekend's protests at the G20 meetings isn't giving the economic development people much to work with when it comes to their post-summit advertising campaigns.

Come to Toronto, for work or pleasure, and enjoy having your civil liberties trampled and your right to free expression stifled. Avail yourself of our hospitality in a crowded detention pen, with free stale buns and water when (or if) your hosts get around to it. Partake of an invigorating massage, courtesy of police officers wielding truncheons. The best part - there's no charge! Except that seems to mean the cops will pick you up, hold you, then let you go without ever following through criminal charges or prosecution, suggesting they had nothing on you in the first place.

The image of Toronto, post-summit, is that this is a place where the rule of law isn't what it used to be, where the democratic right to protest can be suspended if it's inconvenient. That is the message the world is seeing, thanks to social media like Twitter and YouTube, which enabled citizens to post real time accounts and videos of apparent police overreaction, and mainstream media like the New York Times, which published a story on the police actions that cast the city in an unfavourable light.

That is not merely a problem for those who believe in civil liberties - it's also a blow for the business aspirations of Canada's largest city.

Rule of law is one of the big - and often unspoken - competitive advantages of places like Canada, along with being a nice tolerant place to live. Businesses seek out places where the rule of law is strongest, and shun places where it is weak. In fact, one of the standard pitches that investment bankers and lawyers use to convince mining companies to locate here is that even though they may have to do business with dodgy regimes like the Democratic Republic of Congo, a headquarters in Toronto at least affords them the protection of Canada's strong legal regime.

It is no coincidence that the countries that are ranked highest by the World Bank for rule of law, including Canada, Australia, the United States and Denmark, are also among the wealthiest per capita.

Our taxes might be a bit high, the weather's not great, the architecture is mostly lowbrow and the traffic is grim. We put up with all that because nobody in the guise of authority shows up and expropriates your property or your company or your freedoms on some pretext.

But the events of this past weekend have shaken that faith for many. Some of the scenes on Toronto's streets during the G20 recalled for witnesses those more often associated with dictatorships. There were plainclothes officers snatching people from the midst of seemingly peaceful demonstrations and stuffing them in the back of minivans, before speeding away. Passersby arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were cops busting into homes and pointing guns at innocent people in their own beds. (That's what one Toronto couple, veterinarians both, claim happened to them when police snuck into the family apartment at 4 a.m. by mistake, then hemmed and hawed when asked to produce a warrant.)

There were police charges at crowds with no warning. (This is a point the Toronto police dispute, but most eyewitness accounts, including those of journalists, are in agreement that warnings were inadequate, inaudible or even non-existent.)

Some showcase. A few broken windows by lawbreaking protesters have, sadly, become expected at these events. But police behaviour like this and the criminalization of civilian dissent is not expected, certainly not in Canada.

None of the criticism of the police absolves all protesters of blame. Both the criminal element who damaged property and taunted police, as well as the many peaceful protesters who nonetheless refused to disavow violence as a tactic, are at the root of the problem.

However, the police must be held to a higher standard. These were the biggest mass arrests in Canadian history, numbering more than 900. There were surely legitimate reasons for some, but the vast numbers of people simply held then released suggests that police simply picked up everyone in sight, a civil libertarian's nightmare.

For Canada to be a big player in geopolitics, to have the influence that the country's business community wants, needs and deserves, the country is going to have to host these meetings and stomach all their disruptive effects. Good things can and do happen in gatherings of bodies such as the G20, such as increased international commitments to aid and co-operation on areas such as disarmament, deficit reduction and bank reform.

Canada made things happen at the G20, driving the agenda inside the meeting room. That makes it all the more unfortunate that outside the walls, the security services were making a mockery of the idea that this summit could be good for Toronto.

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