The temporary detention centre at 629 Eastern Avenue, on Sunday afternoon. Photo by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.
As Sunday night becomes Monday morning, ten young people are gathered for a midnight feast. Some chop, fry, chat, tweet, or catch up on the news. Others rummage through labeled, clear plastic bags that contain personal belongings: socks, wallets, cameras, and notebooks. When the meal of rice noodles, veggies, and peanut sauce is served and the group digs in, fresh bruises on wrists and arms become more evident. Kawina Robichaud, who has done most of the cooking, remarks that the veggie meal “is probably the first healthy thing we’ve eaten in a couple of days.” Others concur between bites, attempting to process and understand the surreal events of their recent time together at the crude detention centre at 629 Eastern Avenue, the destination of hundreds arrested during unprecedented police activity for the G20 summit.
All ten friends (many of whom I personally know and have worked with) have just been released from police custody after being detained for anywhere from nineteen to twenty-eight hours, picked up by police on Saturday afternoon, evening, and early Sunday morning. Robichaud, who spent twenty-seven of her hours in handcuffs, tells us with bitter irony that she was arrested at the designated protest site in Queen’s Park, after police stormed protesters engaged in an apparently peaceful protest. (Torontoist reporter Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy, among others, was hit with a police baton.) Robichaud and five other women spent three hours cuffed in a police wagon. When the women requested water, Robichaud says an officer within earshot replied, “prisoners don’t get water, prisoners don’t get air—keep that door closed.”
Ben Powless recounts the sense of confusion and panic following the mass arrests in Queen’s Park, saying that police forced hundreds of protesters north to Bloor Street. “People were mad, but they wanted to continue with peaceful protest,” Powless says. Those who found themselves at Bloor and Avenue Road had come either as individuals or as members of any number of groups protesting a range of issues related to the G20 summit. They marched a route which led them east on Bloor Street, south along Yonge Street, and up and down small streets near the fortified security zone at Bay and Wellington streets.
After negotiating their way through police confrontation at Adelaide and Bay streets, the group sat down in front of a riot police squad at Front and Yonge. At this point, Powless recalls that “someone in the crowd said, ‘let’s go to Novotel,’” referring to the hotel on the Esplanade where workers had been striking on Friday. Powless laments that “there was no organization at that point. Decisions by a few people were made for everyone.” The decision to travel south along Scott Street to Novotel proved fateful, as police closed in from both sides of the Esplanade, boxed the protesters in, and proceeded to handcuff, detain, and process protesters before sending hundreds of them to the Eastern Avenue detention centre.
Cam Fenton tells us he and about 150 others served as “jail solidarity workers” in response to the hundreds of people being transported to 629 Eastern Avenue. They arrived at 12:40 a.m. on Saturday, and began demanding information about the identities of the detained and the nature of the charges against them. This, too, led to a confrontation with hundreds of riot police, who warned the gathering that those who failed to disperse would be arrested. According to Fenton, most complied but the few who remained intended to inform media documenting the situation “that we were leaving due to police intimidation.” Their route was then blocked by an Emergency Task Force unit, and they were arrested and placed in a wagon to travel the few meters beyond the fence and into the detention centre. “It was kinda funny how they did that,” remarks Fenton. “Couldn’t we have just walked in?”
From left to right: Kawina Robichaud, Ben Powless, Maryam Adrangi, and Cam Fenton. Photo by Miles Smith.
The group’s accounts of conditions inside the detention centre are ones of austerity, antagonism, suffering, confusion, and disorganization. Kimia Ghomeshi recalls “tons of police, most of [whom] weren’t doing anything.” She says officers routinely replied to requests for information by saying, “I have no idea what’s going on…I wish I knew.” Detainees were locked in cages, denied access to legal counsel, and in some cases, says Robichaud and many others we spoke to who were detained, ridiculed or ignored when requesting first aid or prescribed medication, including a man who fainted after repeatedly being denied treatment for what he said was diabetes. Taylor Flook was in a cell with a woman who claimed to need medication for her bipolar disorder, which she was denied for three hours. Many of the ten describe lighting that made sleep difficult or impossible, especially in concert with heckling officers and screaming captives. They say detainees who experienced extreme anxiety and panic attacks were released from cages to calm down, only be locked up again after a few minutes. Ghomeshi says the conditions were “a complete violation of our rights.”
At least as troubling are allegations of racist and sexist behaviour by officers. Maryam Adrangi relates a conversation between the male officers who photographed her during processing: “‘Take another one,’ says an officer. Another says, ‘Send me one!’ A third says, ‘let’s keep this one [Adrangi] here a bit longer.’” Robichaud claims that an officer commented on a wooden turtle she wears as a necklace, asking if it was her “totem.” She says he continued: “That sure as hell didn’t help you out last night, did it?” Robichaud claims that officers “tried to break our spirits and ridicule our beliefs.” There were toilets in plain view, strip searches, and concerns that at least two detainees who were identified as minors but not permitted to leave.
Julien Lalonde says the mood inside the compound peaked and plummeted wildly: “There were points where people were struggling to stay calm and peaceful. People sometimes yelled ‘I love you’ to each other across the room.” Fenton adds that some maintained morale by heckling or cracking jokes. He cites a favourite, a variation of a widely used chant that was directed at officers processing belongings and photos: “Tell me what bureaucracy looks like—this is what bureaucracy looks like!”
Dave Vasey is the veteran detainee of the group. On Friday, he became the first person to be arrested under the controversial Public Works Protection Act enacted by the McGuinty government earlier this month. Vasey and Flook, his partner, were arrested again on Saturday during the Novotel protest. He describes the circumstances of his two detentions as the result of a “paramilitary occupation of Toronto.” Upon Vasey’s initial arrest, Flook told the Toronto Star she felt “like we are living in a police state.” Reflecting on her own arrest, she recounts that “no one [at Novotel] was resisting, although people were trying to get away.” Flook recalls that arresting officers seemed unsure or unconcerned about the charges being laid, citing an officer who told her she would “probably” be charged with disturbing the peace. Ghomeshi says officers inside the detention centre frequently mentioned a “catch and release” strategy, and wonders aloud if her captors were fishing.
For all the hours they collectively spent in jail, the ten friends have been released without a single charge or appearance in court. They say they are looking forward to sleep and recuperation, but are also quick to emphasize their commitment to exposing and challenging their treatment during the G20 protests. There is talk of legal action, including Vasey’s Charter challenge to the Public Works Protection Act, and trauma counseling (Robichaud worries that “some people were broken in [the detention centre]“). Fenton remarks that he and others were “imprisoned not for breaking the law but for disagreeing with the police.” Ghomeshi echoes this, saying: “we were criminalized for our activism. We should be encouraged to demonstrate peacefully.” She’s ready to talk about what she experienced, and lays out a challenge for her fellow Torontonians, and for people across the country: “Are we going to stay silent and condone this? I know what we”—those in the room on Sunday night—”will do, but what will Canadians do?”