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True North, Strong and Free

 Megaphone (Canada) 17 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) In the months approaching the Olympics, people other than the athletes were preparing as the Canadian government attempted to sweep out all anti-Olympic protests in Vancouver. The creation of the Integrated Security Unit (ISU) was only the beginning as known protesters were targets and their privacy invaded.  - By

True North, Strong and Free - Olympic critic charges that Games put civil liberties at risk


Having just grabbed his caffeine fix one morning last June, Dr. Chris Shaw was on his way to his university research lab when he found himself flanked by two intelligence officers from the Vancouver 2010 Integrated

Security Unit (ISU), an RCMP-led task force in charge of Vancouver's $900-million Olympic security operation.


The officers wanted to have a chat with Shaw, but not about his neurological work. There were security concerns about his 2008 book, The Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games-a critical exploration of the social, economic and environmental impacts of the Games, and of the history behind Vancouver's bid for the Olympics.


The ISU's visit to Shaw was part of a larger surveillance campaign of anti-Olympic activists and protestors in the build-up to the Games. Controversy erupted when local media revealed that friends and relatives of Shaw had also been targeted by the ISU.


With the City of Vancouver having signed a contract with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that ensures "no propaganda or advertising" will be placed within or outside Olympic venues that could be seen by TV cameras or spectators, Megaphone interviewed Dr. Shaw to discuss his concerns about how the Olympics impact our individual and collective civil liberties.



Why has there been so much controversy regarding the ISU's surveillance tactics?


I think a lot of people were very comfortable with the ISU doing their job, as long as it was just with activists. I wouldn't, but one could make the case that the ISU have to go around and talk to people that have been vocal critics of the Games because, who knows, maybe I really have Saddam's weapons of mass destruction in my backyard and I'm going to throw them at the Convention Centre (laughs). It could happen, but it's not real likely. So let's say they have to talk to me. But having them talk to my friends, my ex-wife, people that vaguely know what I do?



Such as Danika Surm? [Surm, a 24-year-old nursing student, was approached by two plainclothes ISU officers at her local community college. Though she knows Shaw, she has no involvement with his activism.]


The problem with Danika's case is that it was so far removed from what I do as an anti-Olympic activist. For a lot of people who may not have a particular opinion on the Olympics beforehand, it's suddenly in their face because it means that they too could be approached by the ISU. If someone talks to me in a coffee shop, or takes a pamphlet, or comes to a lecture I give, are they going to get a knock at the door? Danika was an ordinary person who was all of a sudden subjected to police surveillance, and people think, "That could be me." The ISU crossed a boundary there, and I think they realize it.



Why do you think the ISU has focused so much on activists?


I think they're going after a low-hanging fruit: Protests. There are two reasons for this. First of all, it's easy. I'm known, other activists are known, we're very vocal, it's easy to find us and therefore to appear that they're doing something by talking to us. Number two, it does have an intimidation factor. It's meant basically to tell people, "Look, I can come up to you in the street, I can find you at home, at work, at your coffee shop. I can find you anywhere."


Underlying all of this is that VANOC (the Vancouver Organizing Committee) and the government are pathologically terrified of embarrassment. They're afraid of the PR that could spill out at protests during the torch run. What they're managing is the political impression rather than any real threat.



What about the proposed free speech zones near Olympic venues?


They're saying that protesters don't really have to use these zones, that they're just for your convenience if you want to stay safe. Except the city came in with a signage bylaw that said you can protest, but you can't have a sign with a stick, you can't have a sign that blocks anyone's view, you can't do anything to annoy anybody that is celebrating the Games, you can't have a voice amplification device and you can't have a large backpack. But you can go to your free speech zone!


Some people are totally going to be comfortable with that, but most people I know will take a view that all of Canada is a free speech zone, and I will protest wherever I feel like it on public property.



You filed a joint lawsuit with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association against the City of Vancouver over sign restrictions at Olympic venues, stating that the bylaw prevented you from criticizing the Games. Why did you decide it was necessary to sue the city?


Because you cannot take Charter rights away for commercial interest, and you can't surrender them for three weeks or three minutes. Once you've established the slippery slope that Charter rights are subordinate to something else-and the Charter is supposed to be the supreme law of Canada-you're opening up a Pandora's Box that you don't want to open up in a democratic country. Why should they restrict it to the Olympics? And what happens across the country when municipalities see that they can do this?



The city has since amended the Olympic bylaw to distinguish between commercial and political speech. Did the amendments satisfy your concerns?


They satisfied some of my concerns, but not all of them. They were trying to make it very clear that the city's intent was not to stifle freedom of expression, but only to prevent ambush marketing. But one notes they ordered the removal of an anti-Olympic art mural, claiming it was graffiti. This was our concern, that people who are not adept at understanding the Charter would be going out and enforcing a bylaw that was repressive to begin with.


I was satisfied that the city was going to curtail their enthusiasm for kowtowing to the IOC, but the amendments didn't go far enough. I still think the bylaw should be scrapped altogether. The lawsuit was about making sure we are as broadly protected as possible in the exercise of our Charter rights.


Vancouver had gone down a very dangerous path by creating the law in the first place. Dangerous not just for residents of Vancouver, but for anyone in Canada that respects the Charter as the supreme law of Canada.


A lot of us assume that the Charter is this great wall protecting us from the government. If it's not as strong as we think, then we need to change it to make it stronger. What's the point of having a Charter on paper that doesn't apply?

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