Activism Under Attack

Laurie McBride

What does it say about democracy in Canada when people can be singled out, arrested, jailed, and kept out of a public place at the arbitrary whim of political organizers or police? What are the implications for all of us when anyone can be jailed just for being labelled an activist?

November 2, 1988, during the federal election campaign, three members of the Nanoose Conversion Campaign Norman Abbey, Brian Stedman and I were forcibly removed from a Conservative rally in Nanaimo, searched, arrested, jailed for about two hours, then released with no charges. Our crime? Being “activists”.

While the rally had been advertised as a public meeting, the Conservatives and the RCMP cooperated to make it a decidedly Tory-only affair. Mulroney supporters were bussed in from Vancouver P.C. candidate Kim Campbell's campaign, all expenses paid (including hotel rooms and meals), to stack the meeting. The TV cameras would be there and Mulroney's image was at stake and organizers didn't want a repeat of the previous day's demonstration in Vancouver so the RCMP sanitized the gathering by barring anyone who might have protested or asked embarrassing questions.

At the time we were seized, we were standing quietly among hundreds of people, awaiting the arrival of Mulroney and Tory candidate Ted Schellenberg. We had attended the rally hoping to be able to question the prime minister on why seven U.S. nuclear-capable warships were at Nanoose Bay. We carried a small pennant that said “Another Canadian for Nuclear-Free Harbours”, and were planning to display it when Mulroney arrived. But we never got a change to make even such a simple statement. Just before Mulroney arrived a local Tory worker pointed me out as an ``activist'', and the police moved swiftly to remove all three of us. Outside the hotel, we were searched and found to be carrying nothing more threatening than the pennant, but were taken off to jail anyway. Brian and Norm were held in the drunk tank, and I was put in a cell. About two hours later we were released with no charges.

This was not the first such incident at a Mulroney rally, and indeed, seems part of a pattern of “detainments”. A similar incident occurred in Toronto in October when two members of the Toronto Disarmament Network were arrested and jailed for attempting to ask Mulroney a question about defence issues. Several other people have been held, including people who wanted to raise the issue of free trade, and no charges have been laid in any of these cases.

We don't want to see this happen again, and so we have launched a suit against the RCMP officers and Tory workers involved in the Nanaimo incident and the Solicitor-General. We are suing for false arrest, assault and battery, false imprisonment, and breach of our rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (in particular, the right of freedom of association to be present in a public place).

We believe that this is an important case for all of us, for to allow this kind of abuse to occur again has horrendous implications for anyone trying to work for social change in Canada. After all, when someone can be selectively seized and jailed simply for having views contrary to the government's, does our Canadian “democracy” really give us any more security than people in Chile or Guatemala?

At this stage we are gathering evidence from witnesses and fundraising. We expect to go through the Discoveries Process later this year, in which all parties in the suit will be questioned under oath and the written transcripts will be used in the later trial. The trial itself will probably not begin before late in 1989 or early next year. Support has been good so far; people seem to understand that it's much easier to defend our rights and freedoms before they're taken away completely than to try to get them back once they're gone. However, we still need further support if the case is to continue, as none of us can afford to pursue it on our own. If you can afford to contribute, please send a cheque to “Nanaimo Civil Liberties Suit.” Of course, we would also welcome ideas, offers of help, and questions. Contact us by writing to P.O. Box 122, Gabriola Island, B.C. V0R 1X0, or calling (604) 247-8670.



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