Eight months after the G20 shook Toronto and resulted in the largest mass arrest of citizens in Canadian history, the events of the weekend continue to make headlines. Yet despite ample coverage and hours of evidence of police actions, nothing much has changed. Premier McGuinty recently shot down requests for a comprehensive public inquiry, the Toronto Police Service has deflected responsibility through a lone charged officer, and many Torontonians—and members of the media—have remained unsympathetic to the over 1,100 individuals who were arrested and held without cause in our city.
Little light has been shed on their stories, possibly because the disturbing details say something frightening about what the G20 meant for our city, our country, and our rights as citizens. Photographer Brett Gundlock wants this to change, and he’s using the very tool that got him in trouble in the first place: his camera. Gundlock’s series Prisoners, which runs from March 11 to March 31 at Communication Art Gallery, is a series of portraits of “the casualties of Canada’s largest mass arrest.”
Eric Sylvester. Arrested at Queen’s Park on Saturday, June 26, 2010.
Gundlock is a tough guy. As a photographer for the National Post, it’s his job to shoot tense situations and provide the public with photographic reports of controversial events. It’s a position that’s landed him a few punches at the hands of unhappy subjects throughout his career—though usually from criminals, not the officers of the law.
When Gundlock was assigned to cover the G20 protests in downtown Toronto on Saturday July 27, 2010, he wasn’t worried; he’d spent the previous few days shooting the G8 convention up-close in Huntsville without any problems. Plus he was sporting his large, bright yellow government-issued press badge, given to him directly by the RCMP.
By early that afternoon, Gundlock’s colleague Colin O’Connor, who was shooting on a Post contract that weekend, had already been arrested.
When Gundlock headed over to the designated free speech zone just south of Queen’s Park, he wasn’t nervous; he’d been photographing peaceful protesters all day. It was at Queen’s Park, though, that Gundlock first noticed a palpable shift in police action as the “snatch and grabs” began, with officers targeting individuals in the crowd and dragging them behind the barricade of riot cops. As Gundlock attempted to photograph the action, he says, an officer pointed a pepper spray gun directly in his face. “I held up my badge, and said ‘Media!’ and held up my cameras,” Gundlock told us. “Ten seconds later, the cops grabbed me. I was punched in the head while my hands were raised [in submission]. I wiped out, and four cops began kicking me on the ground. My cameras fell, and a cop kneed me in the back.”
After police cuffed Gundlock and threw him into a wagon full of other “beat up dudes and plenty of blood,” he arrived at the makeshift detention centre at Eastern Avenue. When he tried to ask what he was charged with, the cops wouldn’t give him a straight answer. “They were like, ‘Uh, I don’t know. Maybe obstruction? Maybe assembly?’ It could have been anything. It could have been assault on a police officer. They were charging me the way you would throw darts at a wall,” he remembers. “It was totally arbitrary to them.” (Gundlock was eventually charged with unlawful assembly—while in the free speech zone—and obstruction of an officer, felonies that could have landed him six years in jail.) When Gundlock pulled out his American Express card, which identifies him as an employee of the Post, the officers dismissed it. “They kept saying, ‘You’re not a real journalist, we don’t believe this,’” Gundlock says. He recalls other officers standing around laughing, and one taking pictures of the prisoners with his smartphone.
Gundlock’s account of the next twenty-four hours is an appalling narrative of abuse and humiliation. He describes cement cages filled with over thirty individuals each and one porta-potty with no door, guards who refused requests for water and denied prisoners phone calls to their lawyers for over eight hours, and level-three strip searches. Prisoners were cold and wet, and there were no blankets. Gundlock and O’Connor, who wound up in the same cell, tried to keep one another sane. “Colin and I tried sleeping back-to-back to keep each other warm, but if was freezing. We realized the warmest place was inside the porta-potty, so we all took turns trying to sleep in there.” Prisoners requesting everything from medical supplies to information were repeatedly ordered to “shut the fuck up.” Gundlock recalls guards ordering take-out and eating it in front of the cages, taunting prisoners who had been without food all day. “I’ve never seen a Canadian citizen act like that towards another Canadian citizen,” he says. “At that point, I wasn’t a Canadian citizen. I was on the other side of this democracy.”
The ordeal that Gundlock and hundreds others endured, however, did not result in an immediate public outcry. As the mainstream media spent the bulk of the weekend focusing on black bloc protesters, the Toronto public overwhelmingly sided with the police, as did then-mayor David Miller, who praised their actions. The public’s anti-activist sentiment was summed up in last month’s Fifth Estate episode, satirically titled “You Should Have Stayed At Home,” which attempted to show the weekend’s suspension of freedoms. “People are so passive when it comes to system,” Gundlock says, recalling the indifference that most of the city expressed towards the weekend. “No one cared that there was a full military-type operation in downtown Toronto.”
Gundlock wanted some sort of justice for the complete suspension of his civil rights, but he wasn’t sure how to get it. “The SIU’s [inquiry] is a complete joke, and I didn’t feel I had anyone who I could complain to. I was completely unsatisfied with how the media reported the weekend,” he says. When it was time to face his charges several months later, however, Gundlock had an idea. “That weekend changed my views on photography, on how incredibly important it is,” he says. He decided to bring his camera with him to court.
Vanja Krajina. Arrested at Queen and Spadina on Sunday, June 27, 2010.
Outside of the Metro West Etobicoke Courthouse, Gundlock set up his equipment along with signs asking if any of the 303 others who were also facing charges that day wanted to be photographed. The people whose pictures he took are his fellow detainees—the majority of whom also found out that day that their charges had been dropped.
In addition to the photos, Gundlock wanted to create a way for the former prisoners to share their own experiences. “These people would never have had a voice, they were just pushed aside and forgotten about,” he says. “The reason I’m doing this is because no one else is.” After Gundlock shot the portraits, he invited his subjects to write out short descriptions of their treatment. This text is paired side-by-side with the seventeen portraits that comprise Prisoners. At the exhibit, Gundlock has arranged to have blank index cards available, so that visitors can jot down their own G20 memories, which will be posted alongside those of the detainees. In conjunction with the show’s opening, he will also be launching a website, G20stories.ca, to which readers can contribute their experiences. “I want to further the documentation of the stories of citizens,” he says.
The haunting images and stories in Prisoners echo Gundlock’s frustration, both with the lack of progress in established procedures that are meant to investigate such events and with the ambivalence of the public. The shots forecast a bleak future for civil rights in Canada, revealing a nation that punishes its citizens for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and association—the very freedoms that are supposed to define Canadian democracy. As we watch nations across the globe fight for access to civil rights, it’s troubling that Canadians have little interest in examining the state of our own.
Still, the aftermath of the G20 has led to a small but dedicated opposition movement. Backed by the support of individuals like Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, who called the G20 weekend “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history,” many people who were beaten, arrested, and abused throughout the weekend are refusing to remain silent. Gundlock, who claims he wasn’t much of an activist before the G20, is now fully committed to publicizing what happened to him and the 1,100 others. “This was a huge growing experience for me, but I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through it,” he says. “The police didn’t have one thousand-plus criminals during the G20, but they made a thousand activists. This show is my form of activism.”
Images courtesy of Brett Gundlock.
Prisoners runs from March 11 to March 31. Communication Art Gallery (209 Harbord Street), Monday through Friday 12–8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.–6 p.m.