The Silence of Dissent Will Always Occur

Posted: December 6, 2011 by g. in Cases - Public Order, Vancouver APEC 1997

First of all, what is the APEC? APEC stands for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. It is a forum consisting of 21 countries, which promotes free trade and economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. APEC was established in 1989. Canada joined APEC in 1989. An APEC meeting is held yearly and attended by the heads of government of each member country. In 1997, this APEC meeting was held in Vancouver at the UBC campus on November 24 and 25. During this summit, a protest was held at a designated protest area at UBC.

These demonstrators were protesting against the heads of state that were responsible for human rights violations in their respective country. In particular, Indonesian President Suharto and Chinese President Jiang Zemin were singled out by the protestors as being violators of human rights in Indonesia and China. In fact, Indonesian President Suharto threatened to boycott the Summit if the demonstrations embarrassed or offended his dignity. Some of Suharto’s comments regarding the protest can be found here.

In the days leading up to the Summit, police and security officials were roaming the UBC campus in order to silence any protestors who were putting up signs in the name of human rights. Some anti-Apec organizers were arrested prior to the Summit taking place. The law was used for preventative security and public order purposes, rather than with the intention of criminal prosecution and punishment. Frustration had been mounting in the days leading up to the meeting day. During the Summit, protestors eventually knocked down a security barricade in the designated protest area and RCMP officers responded with pepper spray, police dogs and arrests. Even a CBC camera man was hit with pepper spray. Many allegations of police misconduct were alleged against the RCMP. One such allegation was made by Craig Jones, who was reportedly arrested, held for fourteen hours and released without charge for displaying signs of “Free Speech,” “Democracy,” and “Human Rights”. Due to the many complaints filed against the RCMP, a Commission or Inquiry was held, which investigated the allegations of misconduct by RCMP officers. The Commissioner of Inquiry found that the conduct of individual RCMP officers, in some instances, were inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that members of the public were affected by RCMP misconduct. The final report of this commission can be found by clicking here. Also, a chronological timeline of events relating to the incident can be found by visiting the this website.

After I typed in Vancouver 1997 APEC Summit into the Google search engine, a wide range of websites relating to the topic popped up. The first website that comes up in the search is the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada website. The federal government website details the 1997 Vancouver APEC Summit. There is no mention of the protest or abuse of police authority on this website.

The second link that came up was a Wikipedia link which described everything about the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Under the heading of meeting developments, there are couple sentences that deal with the controversy that occurred with the RCMP using pepper spray against protesters in the 1997 Vancouver Summit. Other conflicts and threats to the other summit are also touched upon.

There is also a link to CBC archives. After clicking this link, a video of a news report taken after the UBC protest is shown. The video shows a heated conflict between RCMP officers and protestors, in which pepper spray is seen to be used. In the end of the video then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien responds to the question of the use of pepper spray by saying, “For me, pepper spray, I put it on my plate.” I thought this remark was very interesting. Here is a link to the video:

The fourth link linked me to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP website. Here the details of the Commission that resulted from the police misconduct at the protest are found. One link titled Fears of APEC-style Clash in 2010, referred to  protests and even had the following picture of the 1997 protests. When reporting on the fears of a conflict at the 2010 APEC Summit, plenty of mention was given to the Vancouver Summit. This website had interviews of some of the protestors and even with the executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. No RCMP representative was interviewed and it seemed to me that the article was written in favour of the protestors.

Overall, after typing in Vancouver 1997 APEC Summit, all but one link on the first page of the google search engine has some mention about the confrontation between protestors and RCMP officers. Interestingly, this one website without any mention of police deviance is the first link and is a government of Canada website.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was entrenched into the Canadian constitution in 1982. This Charter guarantees fundamental freedoms to everyone. According to the Charter, everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. Also, everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. To view the full contents of the Charter you can click here. During the 1997 Vancouver APEC summit, these fundamental freedoms which are guaranteed by the Charter were brushed under the mat and violated by the police during their dealings with demonstrators.

The APEC Commission which was assembled after complaints were made about RCMP conduct during the APEC summit found that the conduct of officers was inconsistent with the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by section 2 of the Charter. This final report could be found here. The question that needs to be asked is who gave the officers orders to strip demonstrators of their fundamental freedoms? The answer to this question is simple when you look back at the history of similar events in Canada. The RCMP was given orders by the political sphere of Canada to strip protestors of their rights and engage in police deviance if the need arose. However, it is important to note that this accusation of political interference has always been denied by the police and the politicians during this event and similar events in history.

The APEC Summit was business as usual. In his article “Hand in Glove? Politicians, Policing, and the Canadian Political Culture”, Wiseman is quoted as saying “behaviour of police and politicians at the APEC summit confirms their long standing view that the state and its police organs engage in systematic repression of democratic voices”. Although, the police and politicians are seen as separate, according to Wiseman, the politician is able to hide behind the veil of the police officer. Essentially, the police are an arm of political administration. During the APEC summit, the politicians used their strong police arm in order to silence the fundamental rights of protestors. Allowing politicians to influence the way police work is done goes against the official paradigm of the police. In the official paradigm or code, police independence is a major feature. According to Punch(2009), the official paradigm is the institutional ideology that an organization is structured upon and the operational paradigm refers to the practices that deviate from the official code. Police conduct during the APEC summit deviated from the official paradigm by allowing political influence to affect their police independence. The police are supposed to be accountable to the government, not directed by it. As stated earlier, if we look back at Canadian history, we can easily find similar instances in which politicians hid under the mask of the police and engaged in politically influenced behaviour. Wiseman states:

“It is hardly new in Canadian history. Police were used by authorities to thwart union-organizing activity among autoworkers in Oshawa,Ontario in the 1930s, in Quebec’s asbestos industry in the 1940s, and among Newfoundland’s loggers in the 1950s. The RCMP’s covert operations targeting the Parti Québécois in the 1970s are well documented.”

“If something goes amiss in the field, as it did, the Prime Minister claims his hands are clean. When the police act heavy-handedly or in violation of the law, a dumb cop excuse is almost always effective in shielding politicians from their responsibility for what happened.”

It is evident after reading “Police Corruption – Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Policing”, by Maurice Punch that the dumb cop excuse is almost always an effective excuse to shield the police organization and politicians from their responsibility during such events as the Vancouver APEC affair. However, Punch argues that the rotten apples theory is false. The rotten orchards theory is one that holds true when looking in-depth at police deviance incidences. The Knapp commission of 1972 and later the Mollen Commission in New York are evidence of that the rotten apples theory or the “dumb cop” theory is false. Instead, “there are no individuals in organizations” like the police according to Punch.

Now we’ll come back to the issue of the police being used as a political tool by politicians. During the Vancouver APEC summit, the strong-arm of the police was used by Canadian politicians. The politicians were the true face behind the mask of police deviance during the event. These politicians promised the Indonesian and Chinese head of states that they would subdue protests that were directed at them. According to the article “Globalization and the policing of protest: the case of APEC 1997” by Ericson et al. (1999), the head of states of Indonesia and China expressed their concerns to Ottawa that they didn’t want their leaders to be publicly embarrassed by protests at the Vancouver APEC summit. Indonesian president Suharto was assured by Canadian authorities that they would police the protest in an effective manner. Thus, the leaders of Indonesia and China influenced our Canadian politicians to influence the police to violate the fundamental freedoms of protestors.  In his (1999) article Ericson et al. comments on the meeting between a RCMP Staff Sergeant and the Indonesian APEC delegation:

RCMP Staff Sergeant Peter Montague reports on an advance meeting he conducted with Indonesian APEC delegation: ’I assured them that if there was a demonstration on a major motorcade route, we would take an alternate route to avoid potential embarrassment. …They asked me several times to repeat this assurance and I did.’

It is evident by the above quote that the RCMP were willing to do whatever it took to save the embarrassment of the Indonesian head of states. Also, the above quote perhaps suggests that the RCMP were influenced not only by Canadian politicians, but also by Indonesian politicians. To me, this suggestion is very disturbing. The fact that Canadian politicians were influencing the police to act in deviant methods in order protect the reputation of an accused human rights violator is horrific. Maurice Punch explains this type of behaviour in his three level typology of police deviance and corruption. The form of police deviance that was demonstrated at the Vancouver APEC summit was externally driven through state domination. In this case, the police were linked to and influenced by the state (Ottawa) and their goals. During this event, the goal of Canadian politicians was to save the embarrassment of visiting head of states. As a result of saving this embarrassment, innocent demonstrators were pepper sprayed, they were illegally strip searched and their fundamental freedoms which are guaranteed by the Canadian constitution were violated.

After the dust settled in the aftermath of the Vancouver APEC affair, a commission was held and the Ted Hughes recommended many things. A news article that comments on the conclusions of the Inquiry can be found here. The most important recommendation that Ted Hughes gave was in regards to relations between the police and Canadian government. Ted Hughes recommends:

“The Mounties should request “statutory codification” stating how they are independent from the federal government. The force’s officers need to know they must “brook no intrusion or interference whatever” in carrying out their duties.”

Although the above recommendation was stated by the head of the Commission, recent history has shown that the above suggestion had not been studied carefully. During the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto, similar events took place in which the police violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of protestors and if you look at that event in detail, you will find that the politicians were again using their arm of the police to crack down on protestors. As Wiseman states in his article, “police power and its use for political and other unlawful purposes is as strong – and as wrong – as ever”.

In sum, the policing of protest at the 1997 APEC meeting was characterized by political intervention, which lead the police to make illegal preventative arrests, censored peaceful expression and assaulted protesters who were already dispersing. Furthermore, there was a departure from democratic norms. Even the Ted Hughes, head of the APEC commission, points a finger at federal officials for unwarranted “influence and intrusion” in the pepper spraying and arrests of students camped at the Summit. However, this political intrusion has always been denied by Canadian politicians. Interestingly, commissioner Ted Hughes invited Jean Chretien to testify at the Inquiry, but the Prime Minister refused and distanced himself from the APEC affair.

In my opinion, events in which police violate the rights of peaceful protestors will always occur. The police, alongside the military, represent the arm of the state. The separation of powers between the police and government is considered an important part of liberal democracy. This separation of powers was invisible during the APEC protest. Politicians were able to influence the police to act in a certain way. When needed, the police can be utilized by the state and powerful interests to silence dissent, violate the rights of protestors and to help maintain the status quo. In the past, the police have been used by the state  to silence dissent during anti-Vietnam protests and during the Black civil rights movement in the United States of America. Closer to home, the 1997 APEC protest and the G20 Toronto Summit are instances in which the police were influenced by the state to silence dissent and to uphold the status quo.


Punch, Maurice (2009). Police Corruption: Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Policing. Devon: Willan Publishing (Routledge)

Bronskill, Jim & Bailey, Patricia (2001). APEC report slams RCMP, Ottawa: Police conduct, meddling by officials called `inappropriate’. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from on October 26, 2011.

Ericson, Richard & Doyle, Aaron. Globalization and the policing of protest: the case of APEC 1997. British Journal of Sociology. Dec 1999, Vol. 50 Issue 4, p589-608.

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