Over the past two months, the people in Tunisia and Egypt have managed to effect serious change in their governments, chasing out corrupt leaders and setting the stage for democratic reform.
And the West gave them a hearty cheer.
More recently, people in Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya have taken steps to overthrow their oppressive governments. Braving bullets and bombs to make themselves heard.
And the West has been telling them to “keep at it” while giving them a solid thumbs-up.
But something has been bugging me, and it wasn’t until just now that I figured out what it was.
Us Westerners have been watching oppressed people rally in the streets of their cities, cheering them on and talking about how nice it is to see democracy sweep over the Middle East, all the while ignoring the deep sense of irony we collectively must have felt.
In June 2010, Toronto hosted the Group of 20 (G20) summit, where financial leaders from the world’s 20 richest countries gathered to discuss global finance. This was an especially important meeting, as the topic of the hour was the global financial crisis, and what actions should be taken by the G20 to ensure that the problems didn’t get worse.
As is the way with such things, Canadian citizens made the decision to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and protest the G20.
Seeing as Canada is a country that had the foresight in 1982 to guarantee its citizens the right to peacefully assemble in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, protestors could have been forgiven for assuming that the government would respect their rights. Unfortunately, they were wrong.
Over the course of the summit, protestors, many who were acting peacefully, were subjected to illegal searches, exposed to police brutality and detained unlawfully — often in conditions that might make a Middle East prison seem cozy.
According to an article on CBC.ca, even members of the press were arrested and detained by police at the G20. Shockingly, some reported being threatened with acts of sexual violence by police at the detention centres.
It would seem like the police forces, tasked with keeping order during the G20, were operating without boundaries, and by many accounts, were completely out of control.
To make matters worse, according to a report from the CBC, up to 90 of the police officers present at the G20 protests removed their name-tags, making their identification for the purposes of filing a complaint all but impossible.
Ontario’s ombudsman, André Marin, called the police actions during the G20 “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history,” when talking to the CBC. To put this in perspective, Canadian history arguably includes several violations of civil liberties, such as the use of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis in 1970 and the RCMP’s infiltration of women’s groups.
It’s not just protestors and activists whose rights as citizens are being violated either. Our government has decided to ignore the Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which it is a signatory, in its compliancy regarding the U.S. trial and imprisonment of former child soldier Omar Khadr.
Couple this to the federal government’s reluctance to openly share information on the handing over of detainees to Afghan forces and Canada has started to become a country I hardly recognize from a human rights perspective.
Aren’t we the country that invented the UN Peacekeeper?
As we watch oppressive governments attempt to restore “order,” can we be sure that our Western governments would act differently from those of Libya and Bahrain?
If Canadians decided tomorrow to overthrow our government and organized in the streets to voice our dissatisfaction, what would happen?
My emotional right-brain wants to believe that if enough citizens rose up in protest, that the government would respect our will and the prime minister would ask the Governor General to dissolve parliament, but after reading about the events in Toronto, my logical left-brain is no longer sure about that.
Now I imagine that the anti-government protestors might be treated much like the anti-G20 protestors were: painted by government officials as being from the fringes of society, arrested indiscriminately and with complete disregard for their rights as Canadian citizens.
Is that how a democratic country should act? Absolutely not.
It is for this reason that we cannot let the events of this past summer go unanswered. If we let the people responsible for “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history” get away with their crimes, we are sending a message that Canadian citizens will tolerate our leaders acting like tyrants.
Unfortunately, issues like the treatment of G20 protestors have become partisan issues, with members of Canada’s centrist and right parties dismissing the treatment of protestors, and even commending the police for their actions.
On Feb. 28, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called on the Canadian government to begin a “comprehensive public inquiry” into just what happened during the G20. Ontario’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, quickly dismissed these calls, stating that five reviews were already underway.
Perhaps the birth of a new, free Middle East isn’t just an opportunity for the people of those nations to exercise their democratic freedoms, but a chance for us to reexamine our own, and reevaluate how we got to a place where we tolerate a government that treats ordinary citizens like criminals, and then dismisses calls for public oversight.