Canadians shouldn’t accept
repressive Olympic security

Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun, July 8, 2009

There’s a knock at the door. It’s the police and they want to talk to you about your political affiliations.

They go door to door asking neighbours about you. They call your family and co-workers and suggest that they might call your employer.

You’re driving down the street. Police stop you for a not-so-routine check and, over the next 40 minutes, you are questioned and your foreign visitors are warned that they need to carry their identification documents with them at all times.

China? No, Vancouver. It’s all part of the security shakedown before the 2010 Winter Olympics are held in what is supposedly one of the freest, most open and transparent democracies in the world.

The Games don’t even start for another seven months, yet the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been all but thrown aside by Vanoc and the Integrated Security Group.

Chris Shaw, the driver stopped by police in February, is a University of B.C. professor who has written a book critical of the 2010 Games. On June 3, police approached him in a West Broadway cafe. Four days later, Shaw was detained for an hour at London’s Heathrow Airport in passport control en route to speak at a conference on the Olympics in Coventry.

Vancouver Coun. Ellen Woodsworth knows of 15 to 20 anti-Olympics activists tracked down and questioned by police in June.

Earlier this year, three others were intercepted by plain-clothes police officer outside city hall after they’d appeared before council with their concerns about the Olympics.

“I was appalled,” says Woodsworth. “That was intimidation and a real breach of the promised protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

On Thursday, Woodsworth wants council to endorse the Coventry Declaration. It was drawn up by Laura Robinson, a former national team cyclist and rower, and passed at the conference Shaw attended.

“The expression of ideas through the written or spoken word is fundamental to democracy and the rights of all individuals and groups,” it says. “The right to be one’s self through words is a pillar of a civil and democratic society.”

Of course that’s not likely to be the end of it. Far from it.

Municipalities all along the 44,000-kilometre, Olympic torch route have been asked by Vanoc to prohibit signs and pamphlets during the relay.

The University of B.C. — host to Olympic hockey — has already warned students against posting any signs or posters that might be damaging to corporate Olympic sponsors.

David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, fears it will go far beyond that.

“I’m not betting on students’ rights if they keep signs up,” he says.

UBC vice-president Stephen Owen rejects that.

But the truth is Vancouver has a long and checkered history of curtailing protest.

In 1997, UBC students were arrested for posting signs and demonstrators pepper-sprayed and strip-searched by police during the 1997 APEC summit.

Public inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes concluded that many mistakes were made. He noted that universities are the wrong places for events where “delegates are to be sequestered and protected from visible and audible signs of dissent.”

Among his conclusions was that there ought to be “generous opportunity” for peaceful protests in Canada. He didn’t say “free-speech zones” such as Vanoc and the ISU are planning.

Bud Mercer, the head of the Integrated Security Unit, contends that tracking people at their homes, coffee shops and workplaces isn’t intimidation or harassment.

Both he and Steve Sweeney, deputy chief of the Vancouver police, say what they’re trying to do is engage potential protesters to help them plan lawful protests.

Yet it’s hard to see how it can be interpreted as anything but threatening, which is why the civil liberties association has a roster of lawyers willing to act at no charge.

None of this is surprising. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart suggested that intrusive security might be an enduring Olympic legacy, noting that in Greece the surveillance cameras never came down and instead of being used for monitoring traffic, they’re used to monitor public gatherings.

Mercer says that won’t happen here.

Still, Stoddart’s warning at a February conference on Olympic security seems apt.

“We have to ensure that security at the Vancouver Olympic Games — however important — does not take us irretrievably down this path,” Stoddart said in February.

But except for the civil libertarians and a few others, nobody seems to be paying attention and certainly not the way they did in the prelude to the Beijing Olympics last summer.

When Chinese security made surprise “visits” to activists, it was front-page news worldwide with screaming headlines about the repressive, autocratic, military dictatorship.

It should be no different this year.

Canadians ought to be furious with politicians for letting it get this far. We should be jamming their e-mail, voice mail and snail-mail boxes in protest.

This is Canada. We’re not like China; not like Iran. At least, not yet.

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