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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > Ides of March 2011 > Elections 2011 and criminalization of dissent


Elections 2011 and criminalization of dissent

Tuesday 5 April 2011, by Stefan Christoff

As election ads fill the airwaves and campaign buses travel Canada’s thawing highways over the next month, the national media-driven debate has shifted toward the possibility of the Conservatives forming a majority government. In newspaper pages coast-to-coast debates are alive on the rough style of party politics propelling attack ads against opposition politicians.

Critically missing from this discussion is the attack on grassroots activism in Canada overseen by this Conservative government.

Propelling the outright physical assault unleashed on people protesting the G20 summit in Toronto this past summer is a criminal attempt via state power in Ottawa to attack activist networks in Canada. In reflecting on the political realities of a potential Conservative majority, it is critical to reflect on systemic actions, undertaken by a Conservative minority parliament, to silence voices of dissent in Canada.

G20 repression

In response to grassroots mobilizations questioning the G20 process, that locks-out the majority of the world’s nations while pushing disastrous economic austerity policies at closed-door inter-governmental meetings, the Conservative government unleashed a $1-billion police attack on protesters.

Military-grade weaponry, tens-of-thousands of police and a three-layer security fence created the backdrop for systemic repression. Physical attacks, illegal detentions and sexual harassment came to shape many experiences of the thousands who dared to publicly question and actively protest the G20.

Police attacks on the streets in Toronto speak to the Conservative disdain for activism and the inherently violent nature of austerity measures. State repression across Europe, from London in recent days, to Athens over recent months and in Seoul, Korea, location for the last G20 summit, illustrates attempts globally to suppress popular rejection of austerity economics.

As corporate taxes are lowered funding for public institutions is hacked, in Canada today the Conservative government aims to ensure the lowest tax rate for corporations in G7 economies, reducing annual government revenues by $14-billion as funding for public healthcare and education remains tight while the working majority face storms of an economic recession.

Activists challenging the economics of free market mania and the violent repression accompanying policies that evoke illusions of the invisible hand of the market, despite the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, are meeting an iron fist of repression around the world. Today activists face a firing line in Canada, involving police armed with toxic gas canisters, sound grenades and rubber bullets ready to fire.

Conservative political violence

In Canada, attacks on public protest at the G20 summit in Toronto point to broader attempts via Conservatives not only to silence protest but to attack organized non-governmental opposition in Canada, a dangerous shift in recent years that must be taken into consideration leading up to the 2011 elections.

Certainly Canada’s history is profoundly marked by state violence, from the mass repression against workers strikes in the early 1900s, or the colonial violence against indigenous people foundational to Canadian nation building, to the enforcement of the ’War Measures Act’ by Pierre Trudeau in 1970, leading to the jailing of tens-of-thousands of left political dissenters in Quebec and across Canada, the majority imprisoned without charge.

Conservative government repression against contemporary activists occurs within this historical trajectory of state violence targeting dissenting voices.

Alarming actions directed at activists in Canada today by state security and police forces is shifting to new heights in recent years and is key to considering our contemporary political reality today in Canada.

A bloated "national security" budget is directing additional millions in public spending to institutions like Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) which in turn has moved to harass activists in Canada publicly questioning government domestic and foreign policy, especially in relation to Israel/Palestine.

Multiple millions spent on technologies of domestic political repression in Canada under a Conservative government is not confined to violent experiences in Toronto during the G20 summit but also to Montreal in recent months.

Police violence against street protests kicked into full-throttle at the 15th annual protest against police brutality on March 15, 2011. Hundreds of riot police attacked a crowd of over 500 demonstrators on St. Denis street gathering to denounce systemic racial profiling and police shooting deaths in the city. Utilizing helicopters, riot-clad cops on horseback, sound grenades, police in Montreal arrested over 250 people, the majority without charge, sending a message to remain silent in the face of police brutality.

Similar to Toronto at the G20 summit the vast majority of physical violence against people was orchestrated by police while a limited amount of property damage by protesters, mainly directed at corporate storefronts.

Days earlier in Montreal 10 activists faced a "pre-emptive" police arrest hours prior to mass protests on March 12th called for by Quebec’s major unions protesting the highly unpopular 2011 Quebec budget, crafted on similar economic austerity logic pronounced by Canada’s Conservative government in militarized downtown Toronto during the G20. Hikes in public fees for access healthcare and education in tandem to sustained corporate tax relief is paramount to the 2011 budget in Quebec.

Certainly the Conservative government in Ottawa played no direct role in repression of anti-police brutality or anti-austerity protests in Montreal over recent weeks, however it is the political moves in Ottawa to normalize police repression, displayed at the G20 in Toronto and enforced by a Conservative "law and order" agenda, that provides political cover for police abuses at protests across the country.

Criminalizing dissent

Beyond direct repression targeting street protests in Canada, Conservatives in Ottawa have moved to silence institutions critical of government policy, international solidarity organizations like KAIROS and Alternatives, facing total government funding cuts due to support for Palestinian self-determination.

It is this attack on political advocacy and engagement outside of governmental politics that is central to the Conservative assault on dissent, an attempt to streamline politics into a more tightly controlled political space on the right. A shift away from a democratic process that includes non-governmental and street-level politics as an important part of the political landscape, a shift away from a political process that celebrates dissenting voices as foundational to democracy.

Currently, in Canada we are witnessing a shift toward the politics of fear, an attempt via Conservative strategists to develop a national political culture rooted in attack politics, a style that normalizes vocalized violence, a rhetoric that can very quickly shift into terrible political violence, as seen in the U.S. over recent years, specifically in the recent Arizona shootings.

As advocates for ideas different to Conservative domestic and foreign policy are criminalized, unfunded and silenced in Canada, the political debate shifts right, while state repression becomes normalized against the grassroots community activists working to take action and expand political participation beyond casting ballots a handful of times a decade into a meaningful grassroots process.

Certainly a clear majority in Canada stands at odds with this stark political vision of fear politics and state violence against community activism propelled by the Conservative government.

As Conservative policies work to compound poverty in Canada via austerity economics, extending war in Afghanistan and expanding global inequality via "free-trade" economics, activists are working throughout the year, election season or not, to challenge these policies and face violent criminalization.

Today it is key to clearly recognize the Conservative attempts to sharpen political repression in Canada. Toronto’s G20 summit, the attacks on activists, the mass arrests, suggests possibilities for this state repression to profoundly alter Canada’s political landscape.

In Canada there is a sustained attack on activism via the Conservative government and it is critical to fight back by all means.

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based community organizer, musician and writer who contributes to Stefan can be found on Twitter.