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Freed From 629 Eastern Avenue, G20 Detainees Speak

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?”


  • Nancy

    it seems canada is no more a peaceful place for students and native people

  • http://undefined Mr. Palmer

    How can we help? I was not detained, and could not make it to the protests, but I’m well aware of what’s happened, as far as anyone is i guess. What sort of action can the general public help you with?

  • http://undefined g20what

    sorry…. this weekend seemed like there was just a bunch of crazy people who thought this was some kind of joke…. if you want a cheap thrill or an adventure go protest in a country that don’t respect human rights.
    worse than the people laughing and screwing around…. were the people calling out the police…. its easy to act tough when your life isn’t on the line

  • http://undefined Simon V.

    At the same time, being conscious, and demonstrating against what’s wrong with globalization, -even in democracies like Canada- is rather an healthy thing,isn’t it?
    Also, think about what Canada Corp. is doing outside Canada:
    Is Sustainable Growth even discussed during those short meeting, where what matters are fiscal policies, sound economic decisions made by the elites and the capitalist mainstream? I don’t think so.

  • http://undefined torontothegreat

    Has it ever been?

  • http://undefined Processed

    I was detained.
    I was at Novotel at the time of the peaceful protest and I was not a protester. I simply went to observe and try to understand the message and the reson for the protest. And the protest was going smoothly. There were about 100 of them sitting in the middle of the road giving the peace sign.
    Then the cops showed up.
    As I noticed riot police gathering and blocking the East side of Esplanade, I tried to exit through the west. Riot police holding tower shields and batons in the front row were backed by officers with rubber bullet guns and tear gas guns in the back. There was no way out.
    They surrounded all of us giving us no chance of escape and informed us that we would all be arrested for ‘breaching the peace.” However, there were no acts of violence, there were no weapons, no motive. The only peace that was breached was ours, by the police officers.
    And I noticed 3 people amongst us civilians who were caught up in this mess unwillingly PAY OFF a woman behind the police lines to GET THEM OUT. If only my phone wasn’t dead I would have taken pictures. I have a clear recollection of these people if you would like further information.
    I spent 20 hours in a cell, not much larger than a dog kennel. We were fed water and given stale buns with margarine and 1 slice of processed cheese only after begging, and pleading for it. Almost everyone I spoke to was DENIED their phonecall. I have badge numbers of police officers who denied our phonecalls, denied us the use of bathroom facilities and even denied giving us their badge numbers.
    Section 2, Section 9, Section 11 of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms were blatently BROKEN.
    What can i do about this?

  • http://undefined Observer is looking 4 names of people arrested at #G20
    Hope this helps. So sorry for everything you’ve all been through.

  • http://undefined Matthew

    This was posted by LuLu Katt Arrested for carrying eye wash and detained in this center.
    Thanks Officer,
    I’ve never felt less protected in my life than when i was in that stupid makeshift jail,
    sitting on the disgusting ground of the tiny youth cage,
    trying to comfort a crying 15 year old through a metal wall,
    asking a passing cop for a shirt or blanket, the girl was freezing.
    And the pig says: “yeah right”.
    Sitting in the adult cage, hands ziptied together, a girl in the cell with me screaming that she needs her medicine, it’s in her bag, they have it. She’ll pass out if she doesn’t take her medicine.
    And the pigs all say “we don’t know where it is.” we tell them it’s in her bag, here’s the property number. They say “we’ve got lots to do right now. maybe we’ll get around to it.”
    Coming out of the search room, being dragged by the handcuffs,
    begging the officer, “i’ve been in here for 7 hours. my parents don’t know where i am, they’re probably so worried. has anyone told them?”
    and he says, “think about your parents before you go out and protest next time.”
    And i’ve never felt more sure that people can be amazing than i was in that stupid makeshift jail,
    terrified, sick, and in pain from the ties on my arms,
    cuffed and not knowing where i was being dragged by the officer,
    waiting to go through yet another metal detector, so sure i was about to break down again,
    when i hear from the guy behind me say something.
    “you’ll be ok, sister.”
    the cop gripping my arm snapped “why are you calling her sister?”
    “she’s in chains next to me, she’s being mistreated like me, for the same reasons. we believe in the same cause. we’re all here in this together, she’s my sister.”
    I’ve never met him before, there’s a good chance i won’t meet him again, but he’s right. he’s my brother through all that. They all were. flashing peace signs, smiling, telling each other to stay strong. That’s all we could do, but it was enough to keep each other going in there.
    Which side would you stick to, after hours in jail for a bogus charge?
    I don’t know how you think that treating us like animals will deter us from continuing to stand up for peace and justice. We’re more motivated now. We aren’t going to just forget the things you said to us, the grimey floors, the lack of food. It’s only going to make us more active, more political.
    You haven’t changed my outlook on anything. But you sure did make it all stronger.
    ♥ ♫