Canadian PM in hot water over APEC '97

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Canadian PM in hot water over APEC '97

By Dr James Winter

As the APEC leaders prepare to meet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on November 15-18, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is still battling calls for his resignation following the APEC '97 debacle in Vancouver.

A commission of inquiry into police actions at APEC last November has revealed disturbing evidence of the prime minister's involvement in the violation of protesters' constitutional and human rights.

A concerted public relations campaign by the prime minister's office (PMO) has challenged the impartiality of the commission chair, putting the hearings on hold, and has led to the arrest of a protester on trumped-up charges, and pulled the public broadcaster's main television journalist from the story for alleged bias.

Documents released demonstrate that in his zeal to prevent then president Suharto of Indonesia seeing unsightly protesters and signs supporting human rights and free speech, Chrétien's office ordered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to get rid of the protesters.

As a result, protesters were roughed up, pepper-sprayed, arrested and strip-searched by police, merely for holding signs promoting freedom of speech, or for standing too close to where the "dignitaries'" motorcade would pass.

Constitutional experts have argued that Chrétien's office violated the law, which could potentially throw the country into a constitutional crisis, by breaching the barrier between legislators and the police force.

Human rights advocates in Canada have launched a petition calling for Chrétien to resign. Even the conservative national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, has recommended that the prime minister step down.

Although there were indications of the PMO's involvement as far back as December, the corporate news media chose to ignore the whole matter until September, when the students brought their complaints before a public commission of inquiry into the RCMP's actions at APEC '97.

Documents subpoenaed from the PMO and the RCMP revealed the prime minister's personal concern for Suharto and his office's and the Ministry of External Affairs' efforts to placate the Indonesian dictator at the expense of the rights of the student protesters.

The hearing and the documents received national publicity, in part, because of the efforts of veteran Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Terry Milewski.

In October, the PMO successfully pressured the CBC into removing Milewski, who, tenaciously and almost alone, worked with students to bring the APEC story to light.

Chrétien's office demanded that the CBC investigate the reporter's actions, simply because Milewski (accurately) referred to the government as "the Forces of Darkness" in an e-mail message to a student, and offered the students advice on how to advance their case in the press.

"Milewski is almost solely responsible for helping push [APEC] to the top of the news a year later, through his dogged release of leaked documents and continuing attention to the political and policing issues raised by the APEC protest", wrote Susan Delacourt of the Globe and Mail on October 17.

The CBC rejected government claims that its reporting was biased, although it did remove Milewski from the story and admonish him for becoming too close to his student sources.

More recently, the spin doctors in the PMO are suspected of dirty tricks against some of the protesters, and of conspiring with the RCMP to delay or halt the commission of inquiry before it can reveal more embarrassing facts, or even subpoena the prime minister himself to testify.

For example, one high-profile APEC protester was charged in October — some 18 months after the fact — with unlawfully destroying his ballot during the 1997 federal election.

Jonathan Oppenheim said he wonders why he is the only person charged when at least 10 members of a group calling themselves the Vancouver Vote for Democracy Campaign destroyed their ballots. Oppenheim had the highest profile of the APEC protesters.

Meanwhile, the Chrétien government and RCMP lawyers have further delayed the APEC inquiry by seeking a court ruling to remove liberal lawyer Gerald Morin as inquiry chair.

Chrétien's government alleged bias by Morin in late October, after RCMP constable Russell Black said he overheard Morin in a Saskatchewan casino say he thought some police officers used too much pepper spray on the students.

A lawyer representing 35 RCMP officers accused of abusing student demonstrators at APEC will argue in the Federal Court that allegations against Morin have created a reasonable apprehension of bias.

The commission has been idle since mid-October, grinding news media coverage to a standstill, as the PMO's spin doctors and the RCMP seek ways to sidetrack its investigation and prevent facts from coming to light.

The prime minister at first dismissed questions about the indiscriminate use of pepper spray by police. In November, 1997, he joked: "For me, I put [pepper] on my plate". He was still making jokes about "pepper steak" in October.

Thanks to the CBC and Terry Milewski, millions of Canadians have repeatedly seen television footage of the RCMP spraying everything in sight at the summit, including the TV camera people, with a huge canister of pepper spray.

In October, Chrétien told reporters that pepper spray is relatively harmless and the protesters were lucky that the police didn't use baseball bats, as they have in the past.

Meanwhile, there are reports of at least four Canadians dying after exposure to the cayenne-based pepper spray in other incidents. Pepper spray was initially approved several years ago for police use as a defensive weapon, but more recently it has become an offensive weapon in Canada.

As part of the PMO's public relations campaign, it announced that Chrétien will raise human rights issues on a 10-day tour of Asia. Chrétien is headed for the annual APEC summit in Kuala Lumpur, where his office claims he will protest to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad against the imprisonment of former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim.

It is unlikely that Chrétien, the "protester", will be pepper-sprayed, strip-searched, arrested and have his human rights violated in Malaysia, as happened to 1997 APEC protesters in Vancouver.

Chrétien also announced a donation of $50,000 for a people's summit of non-governmental organisations to take place alongside the APEC meetings in Kuala Lumpur.

While Chrétien has money for protesters in Malaysia, he claims there is no money to fund the 1997 protesters' legal case before the RCMP Complaints Commission. Chrétien's government turned down a request by the impoverished students, their lawyers and the commission itself to pay mounting legal costs.

As far as the Chrétien government is concerned, protests are okay as long as they are in far away places, but intolerable at home.

For more information on the human rights abuses at APEC 97, see the Operation Hot Pepper site, at <http://www.flipside.org/hotpepper/>.

[Dr James Winter is a professor of communication studies at the University of Windsor, Canada, and editor and publisher of Flipside, the muckraking alternative web weekly <http://www.flipside.org>.]

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