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                   A Summer of Faraway Discontent, Yet Ontario Police Prepare for "War"



By Susanna Kelley

To say this has been a summer of discontent would be an understatement of significant proportion.

In Iraq, the terrorist group ISIS  beheaded - beheaded! - courageous journalist James Foley in its campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate. James Foley's crime?  Telling the truth. 

Foley was exposing the suffering of the Syrian people in another example of unbelievable brutality, where more than 11,000 children have been killed in the last few years as part of the same sectarian violence.

In the Middle East, according to the United Nations, more than 2,100 people, almost 500 of them children, were killed over the summer in Gaza as Israeli bombs hit refugee camps at converted schools, hospitals and other targets. Israel was trying to stop the Hamas government from lobbing 3,000 rockets at Israel as a way to convince it to drop a seven-year long blockade.   

As pictures of these barbaric acts flashed around the world via social media and television, who could blame those who cried out for tough military action to stem the bloodshed?  If ever there seemed to be justification for military force, these instances seemed pretty morally clear-cut. 

Contrast that with the reaction of many who expressed shock this summer as police in Ferguson, USA moved in with armoured personnel carriers, tear gas, rubber bullets, gas canisters and crackers against those protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed African American teenager by a white police officer.  These were used even in the earliest days of the protests, times when videos showed not a whiff of anything but peaceful protest.

Ah, but at least here in Ontario, democracy was working as it should.

Despite a hard fought election campaign where the visions for this province couldn't have been more polar opposite, there was no violence. No threats. No deaths.

Just citizens walking peacefully to their polling stations, entering the voting booth and casting their ballot. Together they decided who was to form the next government.

Whether you lean Liberal, Progressive Conservative, New Democrat or any other direction, all Ontarians can justifiably give themselves a pat on the back for the civilized, peaceful way we conduct our public business and settle our disagreements.  

Which is why it has been so shocking to hear the Windsor police force will now be using an armoured vehicle similar to this one - originally designed for war - a gift courtesy of the Department of National Defence.

Two Cougar AVGPs (Armoured Vehicle General Purpose) of the Canadian Army are shown during a training exercise in Alberta in this 1983 image. (Specialist 5 Vince E. Warner / Wikimedia Commons)

 

The Windsor police are quick to point out the carrier has been "demilitarized" - i.e. its military weaponry removed.

But it turns out it's not the only municipal police force using this kind of armoured vehicle usually reserved for war.

Armoured vehicles are also in use by police in Hamilton, Durham, Toronto, Peel, Ottawa and Sault Ste. Marie.

Why are our municipal police forces using equipment usually reserved for the theatre of war? 

Have Ontarians suddenly become a violent people?  Decreasing crime figures show just the opposite.

There were the G20 protests, where over a thousand people were arrested - but very few were charged, and only a miniscule proportion of those were convicted.

There was the so-called "Queen's Park Riot" in 2000 - but Metro Toronto police did an excellent job of calmly, methodically and with great discipline, clearing the lawn of protesters - without an armoured vehicle.  Their disciplined methods de-escalated what could have been a very tense situation.

But history of protests in Ontario shows that protests where police lack such discipline and instead rely on a massive use of force and threats to break up protests, such as the G20 and, in 1995, Ipperwash, can sometimes end in tragedy.

(An inquiry found that bad intelligence and overreaction by massively armed police ended in the death of native protester Dudley George. At Ipperwash, the OPP brought in an armoured personnel carrier - but even that was under much stricter controls. 

Any police force wanting to use an armoured personnel carrier had to first make a request to the Ontario attorney general. The provincial AG then made an official request of the federal Defence Minister, who could ordered a personnel carrier delivered from St. Thomas, where they were kept, to the requesting police force.

Even those checks and balances were not always enough to prevent police from using massive force on peaceful protesters.

Take, for instance, the 2007 Aboriginal Day of Protest, when native protesters shut down the 401 near Belleville just before a holiday weekend.  It so happened I was making a documentary about the protest for the CBC at the time and had negotiated to go behind the Mohawk barricades for the duration of the protest.

OPP scribe notes from the Command Post I obtained later showed shoddy OPP intelligence led police to believe the natives had guns (that so-called "intelligence" was partly based on inaccurate media reports. I saw no guns whatsoever the entire time the protest was going on.) Yet OPP then-Commissioner Julian Fantino ordered up massive firepower - sharpshooters, the riot squad, the ERT, and more, threatening the peaceful protesters with a dawn raid. He said he didn't care whether there were women and children there, because they chose to be there. In the end, only the cooler head of the OPP Incident Commander at the time avoided the armed raid at the eleventh hour.

What Ferguson and other protests proved was that when police show up in such military equipment, it doesn't act like the desired warning, so much as putting a red flag in front of a bull does.  It escalates the situation, when de-escalation is what is needed.

So now, despite these many tragedies and near-tragedies, we want to give municipal police armoured vehicles to use on our city streets.

Strange how, in one of the most peaceful countries in the world, we want to arm our local police with the kind of military equipment usually reserved for the theatre of war.

A far cry from the British bobby, who relies only his billy club to serve and protect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : September 02, 2014

View all of Susanna Kelley's columns
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