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Analysis: Were G20 arrests indiscriminate?

The roundup of protesters at Toronto's G20 summit represented the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history.

g20 protester
Police arrest a protester at a rally outside the temporary G20 police detention center in Toronto, June 27, 2010. (Simon Hayter/Getty Images)

TORONTO, Canada — It’s useful, when considering the conduct of police during the recent G20 summit in Toronto, to compare it to a time when Canada faced its most serious domestic crisis.

It was back in 1970, during a tumultuous period known as the October Crisis. An extremist group called the FLQ had for years been waging a bombing campaign against federal buildings and institutions in Montreal, part of a bloody bid to make the province of Quebec an independent country.

The group then upped the ante by kidnapping Britain’s trade commissioner, James Cross, and the province’s minister of labor, Pierre Laporte. The provincial and federal governments considered it a state of insurrection and imposed the War Measures Act, which suspended civil liberties and saw Canadian soldiers take control of Montreal streets. The next day, Oct. 17, Laporte was murdered by his kidnappers.

By the end of that year, 468 people were arrested — the biggest peacetime mass roundup in Canadian history. Many were jailed simply for supporting the Parti Quebecois, a political party that wanted to achieve Quebec independence by democratic means. It was elected to power provincially six years later.

Many considered the mass arrests — some were held incommunicado for days — an outrageous abuse of state power. Indeed, 408 of those arrested were eventually released without charges. Only two ended up being sentenced.

Fast forward to Toronto, the weekend of June 26, when, despite objections from the city’s mayor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to host leaders from 20 of the most important economies in the heart of downtown Toronto.

In the sad tradition of international summits, a relatively small group of black-clad protesters turned violent. They smashed windows, largely targeting what they considered symbols of international corporatism, including banks, Starbucks and stores like Gap and Nike.

Despite the presence of 20,000 police officers in a small area of the downtown core — yes, 20,000 — rioters also managed to burn three or four police cruisers.

By no stretch of the most paranoid imagination could anyone assume that a state of insurrection was underway, or even imminent. In fact, the violence resembled what unfortunately has occurred — in Canada and the United States — when major league sports teams win or lose championships.

Toronto police responded by arresting 1,105 people. And they didn’t need the War Measures Act to do it.

There is much evidence suggesting the arrests were indiscriminate. In one incident, riot police rushed a crowd peacefully singing the national anthem.

In another, they surrounded some 500 people at the corner of a major downtown intersection Sunday evening, the day after the violence. Police boxed them there for three hours — a tactic known as “kettling” — in the pouring rain. Most of those detained were innocent bystanders who just happened to be walking by that corner or standing there for one reason or another.