We need to end Montreal’s attacks on activists

March 14, 2007, Montreal


Jaggi Singh, taken from the Montreal Mirror

Jaggi Singh, a well-known Montreal-based social justice activist, was released from jail last night on $1,000 bail, to face trial June 22 for violating his previous bail conditions by participating in the Montreal Women’s Day celebration. The judge stated Singh posed no threat to society. The Montreal police injured three women March 8th while arresting Singh – joining Iran and Pakistan this year in violently breaking up peaceful International Women’s Day events.

Montreal’s liberal public image is being seriously damaged by the increasing reports of police brutality and judicial harassment. Last year, the United Nations issued a public report condemning Montreal for systematically mass arresting and prosecuting over 1,000 peaceful protesters at various downtown demonstrations. Activists are now asking the public to compel the city to respect our freedoms.

It is as if The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees our rights to dissent was not universal but only awarded to beauty contest winners. It would be one thing if police and the judicial system unfairly arrested people on a random basis, but since the targeted anti-globalization arrests over the last few years this is clearly no longer the case here in Montreal. Government abuse like this is never universal – the victims are often political, cultural and ethnic minorities who most need the protection and rights enshrined in our Charter.

Over the last ten years Singh has been exceptionally targeted among social activists in Canada and repeatedly arrested at public events in a relentless cycle of judicial persecution. He is repeatedly charged with violating previous bail conditions against attending protests, although he invariably beats the original charges. Despite such efforts to punish Singh, the Crown has never introduced evidence proving he has participated in or even advocated any violent activity.

In 2004, Judge Beaulieu of the Quebec Superior Court agreed with Singh’s position that:”… the bail conditions imposed on May 2001 have restrained his right to freedom, opinion, expression and the right of freedom of association as protected by article 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Last year, Judge Pillarella stated upon releasing Singh that had his name been Tremblay (a typical French Canadian name), he would not have been arrested in the first place.

While Singh plays down the race element, many others have denounced the racism of the various State agencies that have targeted Singh who is dark skinned in a predominantly white province. They also feel Singh is being punished for his role in mobilizing large protests against the free trade summits for APEC in Vancouver in 1997 and the FTAA in Quebec City in 2000 where he beat charges against using a weapon (namely a catapult for launching soft teddy bears). He has been active in the anti-corporate globalization movement, with Palestinian rights, anti-war activities and with the movement in solidarity with non-status immigrants and refugees.

In the previous year alone, Singh was arrested four times in Montreal – at the Women’s Day march, a rally against Canada’s war in Afghanistan, a Palestinian poetry reading, and for sitting in a public room before PM Harper was to make an announcement. Clearly, the movement is not intimidated by the State’s actions, and this has encouraged Singh to not abandon his rights to public dissent.

Singh has fought and been acquitted of all previous charges that have gone to trial, except one double jeopardy trial where he was charged in both the Superior Court and Municipal Court for participating in a demonstration in early 2000. The jury trial in the Superior Court acquitted Singh, but the trial judge in the Montreal Municipal Court convicted him. That conviction is presently being appealed.

It appears the judicial system is not as much concerned about successful prosecutions of Singh and other protesters – almost all the arrested have either had their cases dropped or resulted in acquittals. Often the jail time post-arrest are greater than the actual punishment for a conviction. This pattern is one of harassment and attempted intimidation against public mobilization. Though the effect may be the opposite. Singh’s court appearances are packed with allies and Singh, who often defends himself, relishes the opportunity to beat the State in public trials.

The annual March 15 Montreal demonstration against police brutality has been dwindling in numbers. This year, however, outraged by the Montreal police attacks on the International Women’s Day celebration and their unjustifiable shooting to death of a Moroccan immigrant, immigrant community organizations, women’s organizations and other political organizations that normally would not participate have endorsed the demonstration and are committed to attending.

Perhaps the authorities will soon realize that their actions to suppress social justice protests are backfiring in this culture (with its rich history of activism), and that they should stop attacking public activists. If not, they should expect Montreal’s international image to get ugly – a nightmare scenario for a city dependent on tourist popularity.