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TORONTO—The men’s shelter doesn’t look like a prison. There are no bars on the windows, no sign announcing the building’s institutional status. The walls are decorated with posters about Indigenous pride and occasionally the air is tinged with the sweet smell of burning sage.
For Ryan Rainville however, it is a prison. He is not allowed to leave the shelter except to see his lawyer and for occasional group activities. There is a long list of people—some of whom he has never met—whom the courts have ordered him not to contact. Because of these conditions he can’t work or go to school.
"I went from being able to actually work and come up with my own money to not being able to work...It's driving me nuts that I can't go out there and look for work because I want to help my mom, and her partner," said Rainville, whose mother was recently diagnosed with cancer. "That poor guy is working double shifts so that he can keep up with the [medical] bills."
Rainville is charged with crimes related to alleged participation in the Black Bloc during the G20 protests. He was arrested August 5, 2010. His original bail was denied and he spent three months in pre-trial detention in prisons in the Toronto area before finally being granted bail on November 9, 2010.
During the G20 protests in Toronto in June 2010, more than 1,100 people were arrested in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Many more were detained or trapped in the rainy streets for hours between lines of riot police using a tactic called "kettling."
The now-infamous Public Works Protection Act, a Second World War-era law that was secretly re-enacted by the province—and which the Ontario Ombudsman called "illegal" and "likely unconstitutional" in a report released in December 2010—was used for arrests across a broad swath of downtown Toronto, even though the act was supposed to apply to the area inside the G20 security fence. In a video posted on YouTube, police officers were quoted as saying, "This ain't Canada right now; you're in G20 land." Only one man—environmental justice activist Dave Vasey—was formally charged under the Public Works Protection Act, but when he arrived at his court date, he found the charges had been "lost."
Many who were released from the temporary detention centre on Eastern Avenue allege beatings by police, threats of rape, strip searches of young women by male officers and widespread denial of the right to call a lawyer after arrest. Due cause was thin on the ground, and in many cases, passers-by were arrested. A Toronto Transit Commission worker in full uniform was arrested while walking between job sites. By the time of the first mass court date for G20 defendants in August 2010, only 300 people faced charges, 100 of which were dropped that day at the courthouse for lack of evidence, and 100 more which were dropped October 14, 2010.
Since the G20, police have engaged in what critics are calling a witchhunt against activists, arresting 11 from Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) during a small demonstration outside Liberal Party headquarters in downtown Toronto. Authorities appear to be targeting particular kinds of activists on thin pretenses. Indigenous activist Jaroslava Avila was arrested after speaking at a health-related event on September 29, 2010, at the University of Toronto, only to have charges dropped for lack of evidence on December 20, 2010, after her name was released to the press and she had spent months living with restrictive bail conditions.
Rainville, 23, is active in Indigenous and working-class organizing. Friends describe him as a tireless activist, always ready with a joke or an insightful observation. He is of Cree background, but notes that he appears White, and therefore escapes the worst racial prejudice.
He is fluent in Spanish—his stepfather is from El Salvador and he taught himself the language while spending time in the country. Self-educated, Rainville is reading through a huge stack of books—political literature, texts on Indigenous land claims and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. He was working on his high school diploma through an academic upgrading course at George Brown before he was forced to drop out due to post-G20 legal harassment. Prior to his current bail conditions, he supported himself through work as a factory laborer and as a baker.
Despite having no criminal record, Rainville was initially denied bail, and had to wait in jail for three months until his appeal was heard. Most other G20 defendants in this situation were released within days or weeks. Rainville attributes this disparity in treatment to poverty.
“My father is dirt-poor and works for just above minimum wage as a truck driver, and my mother lives in the US right now, and is also dirt-poor,” he said. “She was working in a factory for $7.25 per hour until she contracted breast cancer, for which she just had surgery today.”
Because of economic insecurity, he explained, his family has been forced to disperse from Toronto. This makes it difficult to get bail, as he would be unable to live with family if released. Neither can his family post up large amounts of money, nor purchase a plane ticket to Toronto to testify in court on his behalf. Each of these elements of a disadvantaged economic situation work against someone going through the court system.
“If you have a lot of money you are going to get more justice in this system,“ said lawyer Davin Charney, who is familiar with Rainville's case and is defending other G20 arrestees. “This doesn’t apply just to Ryan; this applies to people of the working class and impoverished people.” Charney said many people in economic difficulty find it hard to access bail, not only because they have trouble raising the large sums of money required, but also because they have trouble finding someone who will be respected by the court, and who has space to put them up if the court requires a residential surety—someone who can vouch for them. Homeless people, for example, do not have an address—a requirement to be granted bail.
Gary McCullough, who was arrested for driving near the G20 zone with most of his possessions in his car, experienced the judicial disadvantage of poverty that Charney cited. According to the Toronto Star, McCullogh was kept in prison with minimal health care and suffered a jailhouse beating, exacerbating his mental illness. He was initially denied bail because his elderly parents are unable to supervise him. He was only released December 6, 2010.
“People charged with what would be essentially the same crime are being treated very differently [than non-G20 related offenders],” said Charney. “For example, in my practice when people are charged with mischief it’s seen as a less serious offence, but for some reason because of the context of the G20 there is all this hysteria…They are pulling officers who would normally be on the homicide squad, or the sexual assault squad, and putting them to investigate these ‘mischief makers,’ which I find really upsetting. It’s a political decision on the part of the police.”
Byron Sonne, charged with computer crimes, has been incarcerated without bail since his arrest on June 22, 2010, before the G20 even started.
Activist Alex Hundert was preemptively arrested in the early morning on June 26, 2010, released on bail, then re-arrested. Police interpreted his speaking with several professors at an indoor panel at Ryerson University on September 17, 2010, as violating a bail condition about speaking at public demonstrations. He was released after the legality of this was challenged and after being forced under duress on October 13 to sign what he called “draconian” conditions. Ten days later, Hundert was re-arrested under the pretense of another alleged bail violation; he was recently released after taking a plea bargain with the crown.
Rainville was eventually released to a Native bail program at his hearing on November 10, 2010, with his father and two professors as sureties. But, contrary to normal procedure, Ryan’s bail conditions prevent him from leaving the shelter at all, even accompanied by his sureties. He also has a no-alcohol condition which he attributes to anti-Indigenous targeting. “Despite the fact that I’ve grown up with white-skinned privilege—and I do look like a settler—they are targeting me based on my Cree background with this whole alcohol issue.”
“Out” on bail, Rainville is technically free, but his is a pitiful freedom. Time spent confined at the shelter will not count toward Rainville’s time served if he is convicted at his trial, scheduled to take place in April. This situation was made worse by the fact that his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he could only communicate with her by phone. The day he was interviewed at the shelter, she was having surgery. “They’re telling me that I’m free. But if I were free I’d be holding my mom’s hand next to her hospital bed right now in Louisiana.”
More recent tests found his mother to now be free of cancer.
Rainville can leave the shelter for medical and legal appointments and on group field trips with the shelter staff.
“Aside from that I’m forcibly confined...I basically feel like I’m in jail still, minus the fact my mail is not being torn through and I can read whatever literature I want, and I can have visitors not through a glass window. But aside from that I’m forcibly confined.” The front door of the shelter visibly bothers Ryan; he says he effectively acts as his own jailer.
“I’m doing it to myself, it’s basically out of this want to not end up in jail again,” he said. “I go crazy in this place sometimes. I have to stick to doing jumping jacks and push-ups in my room because I feel like a trapped animal.”
In spite of blatant denial of individuals’ civil rights by the Canadian state, G20 arrestees have been first to encourage Canadians to keep their arrests and detentions in perspective.
“It’s a hugely intrusive imposition,” said Hundert of bail conditions before he was placed on conditions which restricted his ability to talk to media, ”I think it’s supposed to disrupt the communities in which we organize and to be punitive despite the fact that we haven’t been convicted of anything.”
Rainville agrees. “Forget about this,” he said. “Forget about me having a little bit of privilege stripped away from me...This whole thing is a walk in the park compared to what they are doing to people like Omar Khadr.“
Megan Kinch is an activist and journalist in Toronto.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.