The findings of Ted Hughes’ inquiry into the 1997 APEC demonstrations in Vancouver were anticlimactic. Canadians had decided long ago that the Government of Canada was involved in the suppression of demonstrators’ constitutional rights.
These APEC demonstrations were pre-Seattle. They were the kind of peaceful protest that citizens of most democratic countries take for granted. Demonstrators held up signs and sat passively in the road.
The Government of Canada saw things differently. “There was concern about vandalism. This was the very place where the meeting was going to take place. And therefore, the host, the Government of Canada decided that it wanted to secure the site,” says Ivan Whitehall, government lawyer.
Whitehall confuses the 1997 APEC meeting with later confrontations between anarchists and police such as those in Seattle and Quebec, where the Government set up their media focus props — the provocative fence in Quebec city and armoured police in their Darth Vader costumes. Then they waited for the inevitable clash with anarchists.
It’s preferable for the Government to stage conflicts with protestors because then they don’t have to deal with their legitimate concerns. And with the concerns of most Canadians according to a recent poll. Those concerns can be dismissed by Chretien, as he recently did with Quebec delegates from civil society, as “blah, blah, blah.”
The role of the Prime Minister Chretien in directing attacks in 1997 against the peaceful APEC demonstrators was not fully explored by Hughes. The truth is still out there, according to Alliance MP Jim Abbott. “There are filing cabinets full of documents that show involvement of Chretien in the affair,” he says. But Hughes’ commission did not have the mandate to look at them.
There is evidence that involves Prime Minister Chretien. First there is the scrawled police memo that said “PM wants tenters out”. “I did not talk to the police myself” said Prime Minister Chretien (September 1998). Maybe not. And maybe ex-US President Clinton was technically telling the truth when he said “I did not have sex with that Lewinski woman”.
But the most compelling evidence of the Prime Minster’s APEC came from one of Chretien’s own cabinet minsters, Andy Scott. Scott, the former Solicitor General, was sitting on a plane in 1998 and talking to his friend — loud enough for fellow passenger NDP MP Dick Proctor to overhear it all.
Scott told his friend “Hughie may be the guy who takes the fall for this.” Scott was referring to Sgt. Hugh Stewart, who was captured on video dousing demonstrators with pepper spray. The video was played on television news dozens of times.
At first Solicitor General Scott couldn’t seem to remember a thing about the conversation. When a reporter asked “You never heard of Sgt. Stewart?”, Scott replied “No I don’t. No. (Oct. 5 1998 CBC transcripts).
When Scott’s friend agreed with Dick Proctor, Scott had sudden recall. But not soon enough for him to be saved from being sacked by his boss, Prime Minister Chretien.
Sgt. Stewart gained the nickname “Sgt Pepper” by the demonstrators. In the spirit of things, Prime minister Chretien made light of the incident. He called pepper “something I put on my steak” and in the House of Commons said that maybe the police should have used baseball bats instead of pepper spray (October 19, 1998). Ha ha, that’s a good one, Jean.
When the Prime Minister was questioned about the seemingly callous remark, he went from the frying pan to the fire. Chretien replied “I don’t know. You know, use water cannon? I don’t know”.
Jim Abbott was not amused. “Doesn’t he realize that the reference to baseball bats yesterday and then trying to placate people by talking about water cannons today is totally unacceptable, completely offensive to Canadians,” he said.
Chretien’s attitude towards legitimate protest is not acceptable. He is more concerned with protecting the rights of corporations and foreign leaders of dubious distinction than Canadians. His comments turned out to be prophetic in the escalated violence at Quebec.
Was the Prime Minister involved in the embarrassing debacle of fortress Quebec, where water cannons and batons were used on citizens? I don’t think Canadians will have to wait for another inquiry to decide.