Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Human rights group questions OPP action during native protests

Amnesty calls for probe
Human rights group questions OPP action during native protests

Amnesty International Canada is calling on the province to probe the actions of Ontario Provincial Police during two separate series of protests in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, The Intelligencer has learned.

Amnesty has written an open letter to Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Rick Bartolucci to investigate police actions on June 28 and 29, 2007 and April 21 to 28, 2008 and make the findings public.

An OPP official in charge of aboriginal policing calls the charges baseless and said while OPP would welcome a review, the provincial force is confident the findings would not point to any form of police wrongdoing.

On June 29, 2007 parts of Highway 401 and Highway 2 were shut down for several hours, as part of national aboriginal day of action protests to highlight unsettled land claims.

Several protests occurred over April 21 to 28, including one that led to a police standoff and several arrests April 25.

In both instances, Amnesty International claims police dismissed its own policy, born out of the death of a protester in Ipperwash, to not use force at native protests unless absolutely necessary.

Craig Benjamin, an Amnesty campaigner who advocates human rights for indigenous people, said his organization decided to get involved after transcripts of a conversation between OPP commissioner Julian Fantino and native protester Shawn Brant were made public this summer.

"There were too many resemblances to what happened at Ipperwash," Benjamin said, referring to the famous 1995 incident in which aboriginal activist Dudley George was killed by OPP in a standoff.

In one call, Fantino told Brant he and fellow protesters would face "grave circumstances," if they didn't pack up and leave. At a press conference in Toronto this summer, Brant cited that quote as an example that the lives of protesters were at risk.

Benjamin said after studying both the tapes and court transcripts and following subsequent media coverage of the incident -- including Premier Dalton McGuinty's public backing of the commissioner -- it was clear something had to be done.

Amnesty International officials sent a private letter to Bartolucci in August, but were unsatisfied with the response, prompting them to write a second "public" letter on Nov. 12.

The letter calls for the province to "publicly affirm its support for the Ontario Provincial Police Framework for Police Preparedness for Aboriginal Critical Incidents and commit to ensuring that officers are held accountable for any breaches of this Framework." Benjamin explained that the "Framework" is a policy police adopted following the death of George that was presented at the Ipperwash inquiry.

Essentially, it directs police to "work toward a peaceful resolution that respects everyone's rights," without using force unless absolutely necessary, he said.

Benjamin said Amnesty International is still researching the events, by interviewing police, to find out exactly how many officers were at the protests.

While the organization expects it will take a while for the province to take any action, Benjamin said it is trying to keep the issue in the public spotlight to put more pressure on the province.

"This might prompt people to look at it a little deeper and start asking questions themselves," he said.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said, however, the government is not interested in setting up a probe.

"There's a process in place already for people who have complaints over the actions of police to have those complaints aired," said Tony Brown.

He explained the normal procedure is for someone to file a complaint to a municipal police chief, who would bring it to the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services.

An OPP deputy commissioner said police would not object to a public inquiry into the events in Tyendinaga, but also said he would not be worried about its findings, since police did not violate any policies.

Chris Lewis, the commissioner who handles aboriginal policing, called Amnesty International's charges "totally illegitimate."

"Although I can't comment on the specific charges because those are matters before the court, we have an agreement that was represented by Mr. Justice Linden of the Ipperwash inquiry and we follow it to the letter in all incidents, including events in Tyendinaga."

He said the charges are based on "misinformation from a few people," and are unfair, considering officers were assaulted at the events being questioned.

"We handled that very carefully and in accordance with our policy," he said.

The leader of the local First Nations community said his band will distance itself from the Amnesty International campaign.

"We respect that the protesters have a right to go to Amnesty International, but the (band) council doesn't have a role in deciding what the province does," said R. Donald Maracle, chief of Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte.

He said if a probe does occur, he hopes it will address the issue that has caused protests to take place; the need to settle native land claims.

"Regaining control and administration of property that we have that has never been surrendered is really what the goal of the community is," he said.

Source URL: http://www.intelligencer.ca/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=1301017

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