Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
We’ve heard the term a lot over the past few years, but until last summer, most of us had no idea what living in a police state could actually be like. It was otherwise a pejorative, speculative term used to underscore a perceived government threat, or a way of describing the day-to-day experience of life in Iran, or Russia, or, to some, even the United States. Then the G20 came to town.
The first platoons of cops hit the pavement on June 20, the night of the MuchMusic Video Awards. Scattered training exercises had been spotted for months, like fully armed Canadian Forces troops patrolling along the waterfront, or tactical teams doing their thing in the banking district. But that night, nearly drowned out by all the Bieber fever a block or two over, the real thing showed up, drumming a northward, lock-stepping rhythm of boots along Duncan Street.
Five months later, history speaks for itself. A week of patrols, raids, and arbitrary searches; a weekend of violence. Unlawful demands for identification—justified by outdated wartime legislation that was “likely unconstitutional”—and the resulting arrests swept non-violent Torontonians into detention, eventually in historic numbers. In a dangerously ironic turn, officers in riot gear hid their own identities, then proceeded to collectively punish amputee fathers and couples enjoying a night out and reporters—all for the vandalism of the proportionately few. The actions of the Toronto Police Service, in sum, were indeed despicable. It’s as if the notorious “Red Squads” of the 1930s were alive and well, out of their minds, and off their leash. But Toronto cops weren’t the only problem.
The G20 Integrated Security Unit, a federal infrastructure security force, was its own beast. After all, these weren’t just Metro cops or Peel Regional, or even the public order units shuttled in from Podunk, Alberta. This was a multi-agency operation, with participating forces carrying out the quieter features of a police state as well. Activist groups reported weeks of snooping and intimidation, something one could reasonably attribute to CSIS or, notably, the RCMP. Tasked with “intelligence and communications co-ordination,” [PDF] among other things, plainclothes RCMP officers tried to occupy the student newspaper at Ryerson on June 23, intending to break up a pre-G20 planning session of demonstrators. Repeated requests to vacate by newspaper staff failed, and the Mounties left only once security got involved. As Vancouver learned in February, it wasn’t all teargas and riot shields.
Command was also mixed, to put it politely. While Chief Bill Blair weathers the storm of public outrage, Alphonse MacNeil, RCMP chief superintendent and the G8 and G20 show-runner, has largely evaded the same scrutiny. Addressing evidence of police brutality this month, Blair rightly noted that the buck stops with himself. For the Integrated Security Unit as a whole, though, it can’t—and we may not like where it lands. RCMP oversight ultimately follows a very specific chain. Blair, the Star reported, was asked by ISU officials to petition for the “five-metre law,” the trigger for it all. But under a federal umbrella, who were those officials exactly?
Whatever police state Toronto became for the G20, however provisional, belonged to those who wanted it in Toronto to begin with. Chillingly, that’s almost an answer right there.