It’s been five years since a landmark provincial inquiry released its report into policing and Aboriginal land protests in Ontario. The Ontario Provincial Police claim that all the Ipperwash Inquiry’s recommendations directed to them have been addressed. For its part, the province appears satisfied that the OPP’s work is done.
This week, however, a prominent United Nations human rights body meeting in Geneva is questioning this claim.
The Ipperwash Inquiry was a response to longstanding concerns over how police and the provincial government responded to the 1995 occupation of Ipperwash Provincial Park. Dudley George, an unarmed protester, had been shot and killed by a police sniper after the OPP moved to break up the occupation.
During the Inquiry, the OPP pointed to a policy framework that it had adopted after the killing of Dudley George. The Framework for Police Preparedness for Aboriginal Critical Incidents states that the OPP will “make every effort prior to understand the issues and to protect the rights of all involved parties…” and will “promote and develop strategies that minimize the use of force to the fullest extent possible.”
The Inquiry report endorsed the Framework, but it went even further. Noting that police and politicians are often under intense public pressure to end Aboriginal protests quickly, the Inquiry took up a recommendation from the OPP, calling for the province to adopt a similar “peacekeeping” model as official policy across all relevant departments. The Inquiry report also called on the Province to carry out an independent assessment to determine how effectively the Framework has been adopted into OPP procedures and organizational culture.
Five years later, despite the McGuinty government’s pledge to fully implement the Ipperwash Inquiry, the government has yet to adopt the recommended province-wide policy on Aboriginal protests. Nor has there been an independent assessment of how well the OPP is living up to its own policy framework.
Last year, Amnesty International published a detailed case study of how the OPP responded to protests over a longstanding land claim in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville. On two occasions, in 2007 and 2008, the OPP mobilized hundreds of officers, including its highest level of response, the Tactics and Rescue Unit, commonly known as the sniper squad. This preparation to use lethal force took place despite the fact that no evidence has ever been presented that the protest constituted a serious threat to public safety.
In the April 2008 incident, a confrontation between protesters and police escalated to the point that OPP officers aimed high powered rifles at unarmed protesters and bystanders. During the subsequent trial of activists charged in connection with the incidents, the trial judge commented on the efforts that many of those arrested had made to prevent tensions with police and non-Aboriginal counter-protesters from escalating. In contrast, the judge noted that miscommunication among the OPP, including a broken promise not to arrest protesters escorting elders from the site, had contributed to the situation getting out of control. During the trial, one officer with the Tactics and Rescue Unit, asked about the appropriate response to Aboriginal protest, said that he was not very familiar with the OPP framework.
Standards for police use of force, police accountability and respect for the right to protest are all matters protected in international human rights law. This week, Canada makes its regular report before the United Nations Committee against Torture – the independent expert body that oversees the international convention for the prevention of torture and ill-treatment. The Committee has asked Canadian representatives to explain the failure to fully implement the Ipperwash Inquiry and the lack of a probe into police handling of the protests at Tyendinaga.
These are good questions. It’s unfortunate that they are being asked Geneva, rather than being answered at Queen’s Park.