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Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms more critical than ever

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Only three months after I met the unassuming and soft-spoken Charkaoui, a friend of mine was amongst 1,100 demonstrators and bystanders arrested in the largest mass detention in Canadian history (barring, of course, Japanese internment and the vast overrepresentation of Indigenous people in our jails – those could easily be classified as “mass detention”).

As a member of the Queer Resistance Network, an ad hoc group of activists protesting the meetings of the G20 and G8 in Ontario, she helped organize a 60s-style mass kiss-in and spoke of the impact of global economic policies on poor people of colour, migrants, and sexual minorities.

After dark on June 26, 2010, she and her partner were rounded up with hundreds of others outside a makeshift prison improvised by police in a disused film studio, ironically while attending a vigil against previous arrests.

The day before had seen property damage from a faction that broke away from a massive labour and rights-group demonstration, but police chose to target protesters who had nothing to do with the vandalism, beating them senselessly and even trampling them with horses. The crackdown - often carried out by officers who intentionally hid their badge numbers - continued the next day.

My acquaintances were arrested even after following police orders to move away from the area, and when they followed those orders to the letter, they was thrown in jail regardless. But not jail like you'd see on Prison Break or Alcatraz – these were makeshift mesh cages, only metres wide, with an open-door port-a-potty and dozens of prisoners crammed together, many for days, sleeping on the mesh floor. The meals: white Wonder bread and processed cheese, literally thrown onto the floor so that those incarcerated could scramble for them. No lawyers, no phone calls, no privacy. 

Amongst the 1,100 detained in such horrid conditions were accredited journalists, uninvolved bystanders, and even hotel workers who happened to have been on strike outside a hotel where G20 dignitaries were staying. But most disturbing of my friend's experiences is the moment she realized that, like her, all the other prisoners in their particular cage were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ).

Surely this could not happen in Canada?

It happens in Canada. It has never been redressed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No one has gone to jail for this egregious abuse of citizens' rights or countless others that weekend. One could ask: Why celebrate a Charter that doesn't prevent abuse, and is so unjustly ignored when it comes to marginalized people?

Today, the various police forces and governments behind the G20 fiasco are facing at least 10 lawsuits from almost 2,000 individuals, all of them in varying ways invoking the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to claim the systematic and egregious violations of their human rights.

If successful, they will cost the state $162 million collectively.

As we celebrate and honour the 30 years since Pierre Trudeau signed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, let us not sit by idly proclaiming our country's greatness. We need to act, to pay attention, to demand justice – and to work so that there are no more Charkaouis, no more demonstrators, and no more “irregular” refugees locked away without due process, simply because the Conservatives plead for the “benefit of the doubt.”

Happy anniversary, Charter! We salute you - not idly, but actively and fiercely. The stakes are simply too high to celebrate any other way.

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