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The First Public Commission on Policing in Ottawa: The Citizens Panel on Policing and the Community – February, 2002

By September 2, 2022No Comments

By John Baglow

Just over two decades ago, a matter of weeks after 9/11, a G20 meeting took place in Ottawa, and thousands of people from all walks of life joined what was to be peaceful protest against the policies of the IMF and the World Bank on the weekend of November 16-18. Police from four different forces were on hand to greet them, and what happened next shocked the community.

Ordinary people, some merely onlookers, including a reporter from the CBC, offered no provocation. But they were set upon by police officers, who used flying wedges, batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and attack dogs against them, made a number of improper searches and arrests, and many displayed no identification on their uniforms.

City Hall was unmoved by the ensuing outcry, and so was the Ottawa Police Services Board. The Mayor at the time, Bob Chiarelli, backed the police, and his Council voted down a resolution to promote healing in the community. The Police Services Board refused a number of requests to hold an inquiry. It appeared that there would be no official accountability for the violent police overreach in November.

But members of the community were unwilling to let the matter slide. They approached the well-respected former Mayor of Ottawa, Marion Dewar, who agreed to convene a “citizens panel” that would receive public commentary on the November events, both in person and in writing, and then draft a report.

It was a blue-ribbon affair. The five panel members included Dewar, who had chaired the Police Services Board; Ken Binks, former Conservative MP and retired federal judge; Peter Coffin, Anglican Bishop of Ottawa; Dr. Anne Squire, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada; and Jacqueline Pelletier, an organizational development consultant.

The Panel established even-handed, broad terms of reference, sent out a call for submissions, and proceeded to hold public hearings over four days, on February 21, 26, 28, and March 2, 2002. Although invited to do so, Ottawa Police declined to make a submission, but were very present during the sessions.

The Panel heard from 55 presenters at the hearings, and received written comment from an additional 12. This proved to be a cross-section of civil society: the Panel listened to members of the clergy, labour unionists, students, local activists, city councillors, merchants, reporters, and, in the Panel’s own words, “those who described themselves as fathers, mothers, grandmothers, retirees, and simply participants.”

The Panel’s Report, released a few weeks later, identified a number of fundamental problems. Demonstration organizers had consulted with the police beforehand and had every reason to believe their nonviolent events would be allowed to proceed as planned. Instead, the atmosphere the police created during those activities was menacing and intimidating.                

A number of police on duty bore no name tags or badge numbers, and so could not be identified for the purposes of lodging a complaint. Police commanders were nowhere to be found when demonstrators needed assistance cooling down tense encounters with officers. Indeed, the police joint command structure, judging from the sometimes anarchic behaviour of some officers, appears to have broken down—if it ever existed in the first place.

The Ottawa Citizen editorial board was unremittingly hostile to the Panel and to its Report, dismissing it virtually out of hand as one-sided, and dishonestly lumping together all of the diverse participants in the November events as mere “protesters” whose accounts should be greeted with scepticism.  But even that newspaper had to concede that the Panel had come into being by default—the Police Services Board – and provincial authorities – had ducked their responsibilities by not conducting a proper investigation of the policing in November 2001 after a chorus of citizen complaints.                        .   

Yet there is clearly something to be said for a non-institutional response to police heavy-handedness and their reflexive defensiveness after the fact. While the Citizen was wagging its editorial finger, the Ottawa Police Service was putting together a document of its own, released by no coincidence at about the same time as the Panel’s Report —An Agenda for Excellence at Major Events.

Obviously, Ottawa Police Service had been keeping its ear to the ground. A statement from Police Chief Vincent Bevan just after the Panel Report was released on May 9 was surprisingly conciliatory, and the Agenda document itself effectively recast Ottawa Police policy with respect to major events. Among other things, it stressed the importance of dependable, on-going communications between police and demonstrators, including an on-site team of police liaison officers, a functional command centre when more than one police force is involved, and a clear protocol on officer identification.

Over the years, this approach has generally been respected. Perhaps this is due in part to putting into practice one of the recommendations of the Panel, for citizen “accompaniers” to observe police during major events. A few weeks after the Panel Report appeared, the Ottawa Witness Group was formed, and for some years afterwards two-person Witness teams in purple T-shirts monitored policing at such events, taking notes and issuing reports.

When public safety institutions fall down on the job, and their supposed accountability to the public fails, citizen involvement is critical to maintain our security and rights. That lesson was well learned in 2002—and it’s one that never grows old.

Grateful acknowledgement to Bob Thomson, who archived on-line all of the documents referred to in this article.