by W. Wesley Pue
Wesley Pue is a professor in the Faculty of Law and holder of the Nemetz
Chair in Legal History at UBC.
A group of dictators who controlled some of the most powerful economies in
the world came to Canada recently. Many returned to basket-case economies, having
shared their political values with Canada’s leaders. It was not a good exchange.
Though media attention focused on police brutality, the public should be concerned
about matters bigger than low-level thuggery.
The right of free citizens to peacefully express opinion on all and any matters
is the hallmark of free society. It is the foundation on which Canadian constitutionalism
Though any government can properly decide not to raise human rights concerns
in multilateral economic discussions, it is a very different matter to decree
that no Canadian citizen in the line-of-sight of APEC leaders may hold a banner
or shout a slogan.
The former is within the range of lawful political judgement. The latter is
Beyond free expression, two other rights are fundamental. In free societies
any person may do anything not expressly prohibited by law. Second, “no man
can be punished, or can be lawfully made to suffer either in his body or in
his goods, except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal
manner before the ordinary courts” [Lord Hewart].
Imagine two possible lines of authority:
Line A: Prime Minister – flunky’s decree – police – truncheon – citizen
Line B: Constitution – Queen in Parliament – police courts – citizen
The second is a short-form expression of the Rule of Law. The first, not to
put too fine a point on it, is dictatorship. This is so even when assault by
noxious chemical (pepper spray) and plastic handcuff stands in for the truncheon
Now, imagine an act of Parliament enacting that no poster which is displeasing
to the Prime Minister shall be displayed within his view, or perhaps, that no
one within 100 metres should utter words displeasing to a Canadian politician.
No constitutionally minded Commons, Senate or Governor General would approve
it. If enacted, any such statute would be struck down by any court in Canada
without second thought.
No attempt to justify draconian measures on the grounds that certain words
might cause offense to foreign despots (if that were the case) could confer
the dignity of legal justification under the terms of the Charter, within the
spirit of a free and democratic society (Constitution Act, 1981), or under a
constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom (Constitution
Act, 1867). Freedom is not made of such material.
Now, it is an elementary legal principle that, if the Queen in Parliament
is prohibited from doing something, so too are her ministers, executive assistants,
All these features of the Rule of Law were violated when APEC came to UBC.
It may or may not be the case that federal officials insisted on a “no poster”
policy. Policing perimeters at the university were however clearly designed
to conceal any sign of criticism. Dictators, perpetrators of genocide, were
protected from Canadian speech, not mob violence. A cordon sanitaire protected
their sensibilities, not their bodies. Our leaders’ apparent willingness to
violate the spirit on which constitutional freedom rests is no small matter.
Some of the post-APEC accounts of police and political behaviour are, if verifiable,
1. a student arrested for holding a smallish sign saying “free speech”
2. a lawyer/graduate student prohibited by police from posting signs around
Green College, told this was on orders from the “PMO” and that, if she persisted,
police would “think of” a charge after arresting her
3. the obstruction of Graduate Student Society President Kevin Dwyer’s attempt
to fly a flag on a building far from (but within sight of) the APEC meeting
4. a demonstration organizer arrested for an “assault by megaphone” (look
that up in the Criminal Code!) which took place some weeks earlier
5. the use of pepper spray to punish
Substantial issues lurk behind “bad cops.”
The seeming enthusiasm of our elected representatives to order the suspension
of very fundamental rights should not be overlooked.
These matters bear enquiry.