What are we to make of the events at the recent summit in Montebello, Que.? The series of summits was initiated by U.S. President George W. Bush to promote his North American Security and Prosperity Partnership agenda to the Canadian prime minister and the president of Mexico. The meetings included closed-door sessions with corporate leaders.
Critics see the secretive meetings between political and business leaders as another example of the push by the corporate elite for increased North American economic and security integration.
Perhaps the most lasting image of the summit is that of rock-wielding, masked police officers caught on camera attempting to infiltrate the demonstrations. According to protesters, the officers were inciting activists to directly confront the cordon of riot police. This would have provided the police with a justification to disrupt what had to that point been a peaceful action.
Activists have long suspected that police tactics include masquerading as demonstrators. What makes this event particularly significant is that the tactic was caught on video and shown to the world online. The Sûreté du Québec initially denied that its officers infiltrated the demonstrations, then shifted to no comment, and eventually to acknowledgement that indeed the three were its officers.
The point of contention appears to be whether the officers were engaged in inciting the activists to attack the cordon of riot police, or were simply operating undercover to keep an eye on demonstrators.
A number of organizations recently came together in Nova Scotia to call for a public inquiry into the events in Montebello. The broad range of interests represented gives this call particular credibility. It included environmental, human rights, labour and peace groups. The call for an inquiry transcended partisan politics with the participation of the Greens and the NDP.
An editorial in the Chronicle Herald claims there is not enough evidence to warrant a public inquiry at this time. But surely this is what we expect a public inquiry to do: uncover and assess the evidence and get to the bottom of the incident.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Herald editorial is that while it states there should be an investigation and public reckoning of the actions and procedures of the police, "a full-fledged public inquiry would spend more public money than it’s worth. This was, after all, a minor incident."
To close off the quest for justice by notions that it might cost too much comes precariously close to saying justice should somehow be determined by the marketplace and that justice is for those who can afford it.
The incident in Montebello may or may not be a minor one, although it is difficult to imagine how the possibility that police and government set out to undermine people’s right to protest could be anything other than serious. Indeed, this is precisely the point of an inquiry – to discover whether it is a minor, isolated incident or part of broader police tactics to manage, control and disrupt demonstrations. Do police infiltration tactics include inciting demonstrators to provoke riot police? To what degree, if any, were higher level officials, including the RCMP and the prime minister’s office, aware of or involved in the tactics used by the three Sûreté du Québec officers?
We also should not lose sight of the bigger picture. Citizens were engaged in legal, constitutionally protected actions to challenge the legitimacy of a closed-door meeting between the top rungs of North American government and business elites engaged in mapping out the future of the continent. Any such initiative undertaken behind closed doors undermines democracy, and rightly provokes criticism and demands by citizens for a more open and accountable process.
It is also important to consider the relationship between the issues being protested and the actions by security officials which undermine and discredit the protesters. The decision by police to intervene was not politically neutral. Those calling for an inquiry say police officials decided to carry out disruptive and discrediting actions when citizens were attempting to bring attention to secret negotiations affecting the future sovereignty of Canada. This is profoundly disturbing and, yes, warrants an inquiry.
The right to public assembly is as fundamental a human right in a democracy as the vote. It must be protected and nurtured. Canadians are already faced with a withering away of democracy on a number of fronts. Citizens are increasingly deciding it is not worth bothering to vote, with many concluding their vote will have no real impact. . Governments are increasingly turning decision-making related to public affairs and public services over to the marketplace and private interests.
The summit is one more example of these tendencies. It fuels cynicism and distrust of governments and public officials. With governments increasingly setting the public policy agenda in concert with the corporate sector, protection of fundamental rights such as freedom of assembly is essential to democracy and the promotion of the public interest.
To that end the calls for a public inquiry are justified. Such an inquiry is needed to reinforce fundamental human rights, democracy and accountable public policy, principles that were undermined at the summit in Montebello.
John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca) an independent public policy research institute.