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TORONTO—A Quebec court ruling in January 2011 found police acted illegally in trying to shut down a protest in Montebello, Quebec, in 2007, when they arrested two women on a downtown street. This ruling has led to renewed calls for an inquiry into another police action—one now well-known, thanks to Youtube—at that same protest: the alleged use of undercover officers to incite violence.
On August 20, 2007, the heads of state of Canada, Mexico and the US met at a summit in Montebello to discuss the proposed Security Prosperity Partnership (SPP), an agreement that would have harmonized trade and security measures between the three countries. A protest against the meeting took place throughout the day.
Late in the afternoon, when the number of demonstrators had dwindled, a line of riot police attempted to disperse those who remained on the streets. While most of the protesters were pushed backwards by police, activist Leila Martin and another person sat on the ground, clinging to each other, as the police swept over them. They were arrested for obstructing police, who were carrying out orders to shut down the demonstration.
Martin was offered a discharge if she pleaded guilty to the charge, whereby she would not receive any fine, jail time, or a criminal record. She was advised to take the deal by her court-appointed lawyer. She told him, “I don't actually think I am guilty and I think my freedom of assembly was violated.”
Her lawyer told her that if she pleaded not guilty he would refuse to represent her.
“You won't represent me then,” she told him.
Martin then went about the work of learning how to prepare her own defense, reading all the court cases she could find which involved charter challenges. She made sure that her charter challenge emphasized why she was protesting the SPP.
Martin did most of the research around presenting her case, and eventually acquired a lawyer, Denis Barrette, who helped her finish writing her charter challenge and represented her in court.
Martin told The Dominion that with support, it is possible to prepare one’s own charter challenge. (She said she would encourage anyone in a similar position to write to her, "and I would help them do it.")
When the matter eventually went to court, Judge Lapointe ruled the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had indeed been violated.
“The approach [of the] RCMP against the two women arrested, including the accused, is incomprehensible,” said Quebec Court Judge Real Lapointe in his January ruling, acquitting the charge brought against activist Martin.
“Police decided to end the demonstration. We will not know why. In itself it is surprising, in the presence of a largely peaceful and festive crowd who met...to express opinions and positions. This expression of their deepest beliefs is a right guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of this country and gives the rally itself a special character and importance.”
The RCMP and Surete du Quebec (SQ—Quebec police) chose not to comment on the ruling.
Judge Lapointe said another factor that supported the argument of the defense was testimony that during the protest police used agents provocateurs—a term used to describe the use of undercover officers to try and provoke activists into committing illegal acts.
Lapointe was referring to an incident earlier in the protest. Dave Coles, President of the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), confronted three undercover police officers dressed in black and wearing masks over their faces. The officers were posing as Black Bloc, and one of them, who would later be identified as Sergent Jean-Francois Boucher, held a large stone in his hand. The event was caught on video.
“These three guys are cops, everybody; put the rock down, cop,” said Coles on the video. As Coles confronted the three undercover officers, Boucher shoved him. The officers also swore at Coles, and continued to push him and others gathered at the scene.
Coles and others activists, including some dressed in Black Bloc, continued to yell at the undercover officers and tried to remove their masks. Eventually the three jumped into the line of riot police, where they were handcuffed and led away.
“They are trying to create a riot so they can suck us all in to get beat up,” said Coles on the video, which went viral on Youtube and has been watched more than a half-million times.
At first the RCMP and SQ denied allegations that the men were in fact police officers. But three days after the incident, on August 23, 2007, the SQ released a statement explaining the men were indeed undercover members of their force, but denying that the officers had committed an illegal act.
The three officers, Sergeants Boucher, Joey Laflamme and Patrick Tremblay were part of an undercover team code-named “flagrant delit,” which roughly translates to “caught red-handed.” The team’s official role, according to a report by the Quebec Police Ethics Committee, was to “melt into the crowd to identify the perpetrators of crime and stop them.”
“It is wrong for a state to use its own security forces, police, provocateurs, undercover agents, to evoke violence. That's not democratic. We have a voice, we had a right to [speak], and we had a right to assemble,” Coles told The Dominion in a telephone interview.
Coles began asking for a public inquiry into the event. He wanted to know who gave the orders to use agents provocateurs. Instead of being granted an inquiry, the channel offered to him was to bring a complaint before the official body for dealing with police wrongdoing in Quebec, the Police Ethics Committee.
On May 19, 2009, the Commissioner of the Committee dismissed six of the eight complaints brought forward by the CEP. Five months later, on October 19, 2009, the Committee overturned the Commissioner’s ruling and started a new investigation, stating, “If the infiltration of police officers to stop the authors of criminal acts is acceptable, not all acts committed by [police] to this end are legitimate just because the original goal is desirable.”
The Committee released its final report on March 14th, 2011, finding that Boucher had breached the police code of conduct by swearing at and pushing Coles, but dismissed charges of inciting violence and abusing his authority. The charges against the other two officers were all dismissed.
Coles does not think the Committee was asking the right questions. He wanted to know who gave orders for undercover police to incite protesters in Montebello in 2007.
“They were able to box us into a corner,” said Coles about the way his complaint was handled by the Committee. “It was all about the conduct of three policemen rather than who gave the political orders for agent provocateurs to go in and disrupt the assembly.”
Coles said he felt encouraged by Judge Lapointe’s ruling, and he has renewed his call for an inquiry into the actions of police at Montebello—especially the use of agents provocateurs.
“What is happening more and more and more in Canada, as witnessed through the G8/G20, is that the state thinks that if they don't like what you have to say, they will go in and mess it up so that the message isn't clear,” said Coles.
No clear evidence has emerged that agent provocateurs were used at the G20 protests. However, some activists like Coles still have their suspicions.
A week after the G20 protests, on July 2, 2010, Le Devoir, a Quebec daily newspaper, ran a story entitled, “G20: la police aurait utilise des agents provocateurs”—“G20: The police reportedly used agents provocateurs.”
The article refers to a video in which “plainclothes police, disguised as protesters, some armed with batons and sticks, took cover behind a cordon of police. One of them dressed all in black with a hood over his head, as [in the style of] Black Bloc.”
However there is no indication in this video that the alleged plainclothed officers were provoking or inciting activists.
"As far as [using] officers dressed as Black Bloc, I will not say we didn't. I will not speak to our techniques," said Sergeant Michele Paradis, an RCMP spokesperson, when asked about police tactics during the G20. "I won't speak to the manners we will use to keep the community and the [G20] delegates safe."
Meaghan Gray, spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, had a less ambiguous answer, saying in an email that undercover officers did not dress as Black Bloc.
In response to an access-to-information request on the "use of so-called agent provocateurs or undercover Black Bloc infiltration policies" at the G20, nine pages were released by the RCMP and made available to The Dominion. These documents mostly deal with the structure of undercover operations. In addition to these nine pages, another four pages were redacted in their entirety.
Only one page—a set of media talking points—speaks about agents provocateurs. It reads, “None of the Integrated Security Unit partners use so-called agents provocateurs,” and, “In fact, the role of police is to de-escalate tension and preserve the peace.”
“I don’t believe that. In fact, there is just no evidence that the police were trying to diffuse anything,” said Coles.
Coles said many wrongdoings at the G20 have already been exposed, but he expects many more will be revealed.
“A lot of this stuff is going to be uncovered a lot more [easily] than it was for us at Montebello,” he said. He believes the number of photos and videos taken in Toronto is what will make a difference. “I think social media is going to help us to uncover the facts and force an inquiry.”
His union, the CEP, is one of many groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), the federal New Democratic Party and Amnesty International, calling for a public inquiry into police actions at the G20.
"The suggestion that police informants may have endorsed or supported the commission of acts of vandalism is particularly concerning," said NUPGE and the CCLA in a recent report on police actions during the G20. They "believe an independent inquiry into this aspect of G20 policing is necessary to investigate the extent of undercover operations and address the limits on what police infiltrators can and cannot do while on assignment."
Tim Groves is an investigative researcher and journalist based in Toronto. He twitters @timymit.
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.