On the fragility of democratic rights (and why I’ve been MIA)

Since last summer, I’ve been in charge of communications and fundraising at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Following years of working in international development and concentrating on international issues professionally and academically, this was an interesting challenge for me, and a new area of focus. It’s been a great learning experience on many levels. As the communications and fundraising person, I was for the first time on the “other” side of the organization. In international development circles and the aid industry, there are ongoing debates about the gap between fundraisers and marketers, and the field practitioners and others who focus on “substance.” People in these industries frequently complain about how little – if any – genuine collaboration exists between these areas.

I’m lucky to have landed in an organization where the staff is a tight-knit group, and the communications and fundraising strategies have historically been intrinsically linked to the organization’s work and its advocacy. For me, this has meant that I’ve had the opportunity to learn (a lot, and quickly) about civil liberties issues in Canada. One of the major issues the CCLA has focused on in the past year is what happened during last summer’s G20 summit in Toronto. As is the case with almost every high-level international summit, civil society groups planned protests and demonstrations on the margins of the official summit. A large number of unions, NGOs, community and student groups came to Toronto to voice their concerns on a wide range of issues: protesting the austerity agenda and cuts in public services, a lack of focus on poverty alleviation, their perception that the global corporate agenda was trumping people’s rights. Whatever their issues may be, regardless of whether we as individuals or the government agrees with their views, the Toronto protests were an opportunity for groups to speak up. In Canada, this is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. A nearly 30 year old document, the Charter contains many of the principles which underlie the international human rights regime – fundamental freedoms, democratic rights, mobility rights, equality rights…

In a report last summer, this is how CCLA characterized the importance of freedom of assembly:

…However, freedom of peaceful assembly is as important as the right to vote in a democracy. It should be treated with the same respect. Democracy is governance for the people by the people and politicians are expected to hear, consult, and engage with the people in between elections to govern effectively.¬† But access to politicians is unequally distributed: rich people have their lobbyists and poor people have their feet.¬† Marching in favour of or against a proposed policy is often the only way to be heard for people whose op-ed will not be published in the Toronto Star and whom the Minister will not meet at a cocktail party or a fundraising event.

This video gives you a pretty good sense of the completely inappropriate response from law enforcement and riot police last summer in Toronto:

Unfortunately, even a modern democratic state like Canada is not free from the abuse of rights. During the G20 last summer, law enforcement authorities (including the local Toronto police, the Ontario police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and police officers from all across Canada) cracked down on peaceful protests: demonstrations were violently dispersed – including in the so-called “free speech zone” -, protesters, passers-by, tourists and anyone who happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time, were rounded up for arrest. Over 1,100 people were arrested at the G20 last summer, the biggest mass arrest in Canadian peace time history. There were so many issues at the summit, and then a complete lack of accountability from the federal and provincial government, who are dismissing the evidence and the facts that something went terribly wrong last summer.

The photo to left is John Pruyn speaking at the rally CCLA and others organized last week to mark the one year anniversary. Mr. Pruyn, a Revenue Canada employee and part-time Christmas tree farmer, had his prosthetic leg ripped off by police during his arrest last summer. Pruyn was waiting for his wife and daughter at the subway station when he was violently arrested, and subsequently detained for 27 hours.

If you have a moment, I suggest taking a listen to some of the personal testimonies from the public hearings CCLA held back in November. There are horrifying stories of gay men and women being harassed by police, of dehumanizing, repeated strip searches, of beatings and violent arrests. The report based on the hearings, A Breach of the Peace, is also worth checking out.

I’m not Canadian, but in my three years here, I’ve come to appreciate this country, in particular for its attachment to social and human values – the treatment of minorities, the availability of social services, a generally progressive polity. Every day, in my job, I tell stories of rights being violated and abused – the G20 protests have been a big story, but there are also other areas of significant concern: the recent strike by postal workers was essentially shut down by the majority government through “back to work” legislation. Again, whether or not we agree with the demands of the postal workers’ union, we should be worried about the assault on collective bargaining rights and freedom of association.

There are countless examples of rights and freedoms being slowly and quietly eroded in Canada. There is no need to panic (yet?), but what this should remind us is that, even in a progressive country like Canada, people’s rights and freedoms are fragile. The fights we undertake also underscore just how critical democratic rights beyond the right to vote are. Around the world, democracy advocates need to ensure that they’re fighting for a free press, for equal rights for men and women, for the right to speak up against your government.

My work at CCLA has really brought home for me this notion that freedoms and rights are an intricate, dynamic web. The legal regimes that protect us – whether nationally or internationally – are not to be taken for granted. What I see daily are attempts to circumvent and erode the civil liberties, individual and collective rights that are the hallmark of modern life. I truly believe that human rights – civil liberties, fundamental freedoms – are absolutely critical to maintaining a civilized society. When we fight for rights in Canada, we’re also affirming the centrality of these rights globally.

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June marked one year since the G20 summit was held in Toronto, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association was in overdrive to make sure that the issue stays on top of the agenda, and that accountability mechanisms that work are put in place. My colleagues and I have been speaking to the media extensively on this issue (below is a clip of our general counsel talking about how CCLA human rights monitors at the G20 were arrested), and we organized several events with a number of partner organizations to reflect on lessons learned, and to keep the pressure on the government to take the massive violation of civil liberties that occurred last summer seriously.

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To see more about the events we organized, click on the image:

June 21st - A gala honouring 21 Canadians for their contributions to democracy

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