Would you believe that after the G8 meeting held near Calgary in 2002 the Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow complimented the city police on their approach to political activists who took to the streets?
Would you believe that Starhawk, an activist from San Francisco, said the police in Calgary behaved like no other security force she had seen in her round-the-world travels on the protest circuit? No sinister face-shields, no tear gas, water cannons or dogs.
Given what happened during the G8/G20 meetings in Toronto and other locales over the past few years, the Calgary experience now seems like a short but pleasant daydream. But it also shows what's possible when police and political activists try to respect each other's rights and responsibilities.
The G8 leaders gathered at a secluded mountain resort - Kananaskis Village - about 80 kilometres west of Calgary. They were fenced in by 1,000 soldiers and sharpshooters and a 150-kilometre no-fly zone patrolled by CF-18s. Jean Chrétien chose the location. And given that 9/11 had shocked the world less than a year before and that U.S. president George W. Bush would be in attendance it seemed like a brilliant solution to numerous security issues.
Activists with unions, social justice groups and student organizations realized early on that they were not going to get anywhere near the G8 leaders so they focused their attention on downtown Calgary. Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour said they wanted to create a festival atmosphere so various causes could be brought to the attention of the general public without violence and rancour. Of course, not everyone believed this. Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier still treated them like terrorists in training.
The police, however, decided to take a softer approach to demonstrators. For months before the G8 meeting they met with representatives of various groups and listened to their complaints about police harassment. They also made it clear that they knew protesters had certain rights and they would respect them.
And indeed downtown Calgary did take on a festival atmosphere during the G8 meeting. People marched through the streets with costumes and provocative banners while families stood along the route as enthralled as if they were watching a parade. The police kept the peace on bicycles and could be seen joking with the protesters, even offering them bottles of water. Dozens of heavily armed riot police were close at hand but always out of sight.
The protesters - everyone from the Council of Canadians to the Anti-Capitalist Collective to the Canadian Auto Workers to the Pagan Cluster - were remarkably disciplined.
When a few masked agitators started rocking and climbing a fence around the Stampede complex where G8 leaders were having a cocktail party, protest leaders turned the crowd around. They effectively isolated the fence rockers who were quickly surrounded by police and sent on their way.
One morning, black-clad thugs began a shoving match against officers in a bike unit. After about 10 minutes, a heavily armed tactical team arrived on the scene and the guys in black simply ran away. Again no one was arrested.
It's true that there were far fewer demonstrators than in Toronto. And some activists were stopped at the border and never made it to Calgary. But it is also clear, even to seasoned activists, that an intelligent, respectful and well-disciplined police force made all the difference.
Toronto Star, Tues July 6 2010
Byline: Gillian Steward