The "Citizens Caged" Petition

April 1st, 2001
By Sarah Polley Clayton Ruby

Naomi Klein, actor Sarah Polley, and lawyer Clayton Ruby initiated this petition to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in anticipation of police violence during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The letter sought to galvanize public opinion, particularly in the arts community. Over six thousand Canadians signed: artists, academics, journalists, judges, lawyers and intellectuals. Among them were some of Canada’s most prominent cultural figures, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Atom Egoyan, Michael Ignatieff, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and the Barenaked Ladies.

As Canadians who value freedom of expression as an essential democratic right and depend on that right to make our living, we will watch with vigilance the actions of police officers and immigration agents next week when the Summit of the Americas convenes in Quebec City.

The right to freedom of expression, so fundamental to our democracy, includes the right not just to speak and communicate but to be heard. The constitutional right to peaceful assembly encompasses the right to gather in public spaces in all Canadian cities. The right to freedom of movement across borders extends not just to trade and tourism but also to political rallies, conferences and protests.

Designed to keep lawful protesters out of sight and earshot, the security barrier constructed around Quebec City tramples on such fundamental freedoms. Following the spirit of our constitution, we condemn this action. We believe that the planned presence of approximately six thousand police officers around the summit site is not an incentive to peaceful protest. We also condemn the practice of arbitrarily refusing entry to concerned citizens of other countries, thereby preventing them from expressing their views to the world media about a free trade agreement that extends across thirty-four national borders.

Democracy does not only take place in parliaments, voting booths and official summits. It takes place in meeting halls, public parks and in the streets. It also includes, at times, peaceful acts of civil disobedience. When the streets are blocked off and hundreds of meeting halls in Quebec City are out of reach to citizens because they are inside a sprawling" security zone," it is democracy itself that is marginalized. And when large corporations are given the opportunity to buy access to political leaders through partial sponsorship of the Summit of the Americas, as has transpired here, it creates the impression that political accountability is for sale.

We are also concerned about leaked Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents that portray protesters coming to Quebec City as "violent," yet fail to support that claim with any corroborating evidence; and that such unsupported characterizations, repeated in press reports, could set the stage for excessive use of force by police officers. Many of the activists headed for Quebec City are young people expressing their political views and engaged in principled and peaceful expression and civil disobedience, and we are gravely concerned about all the protesters’ physical safety. In the past four years, we have watched the use of pepper spray become distressingly commonplace at political demonstrations timed with meetings of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the World Economic Forum, the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, as well as U.S. political conventions. We have also witnessed, from the streets of Washington, D.C., to Davos, Switzerland, the escalating use of tear gas, mass arrests, water cannons and rubber bullets by police during some of these demonstrations, as well as such increasingly common security techniques as pre-emptive arrests of protest organizers, random beatings of activists, raids on activist "convergence centres" and the seizure of harmless protest materials such as placards and puppets.

Throughout this country’s history, Canadians such as George Etienne Cartier and Robert Baldwin have fought for both civic tolerance and the democratic right of freedom of expression. It is not too late for the Summit of the Americas to be an event during which our political leaders do more than talk about democracy. They can also embody democratic principles of freedom of expression and movement by refusing to shield themselves from open criticism and debate on matters of crucial importance to citizens of the Americas. With the world watching closely, this is an opportunity to make Canada a model for democratic principles.

In this spirit, we call on the security forces at our borders and in Quebec City to vigorously defend not only the safety of visiting heads of state but the rights of political activists within Canada.