by Fred McMahon
The Moncton Times and Transcript, The Halifax Daily News
In the late 19th century, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck was up to his ears in military squabbles. During one such flap, he was asked what he would do if the British army – an institution rather less feared than the British navy – landed in the German port of Bremerhaven. “Call out the city police,” responded the unimpressed chancellor.
Similarly, Kanada’s Keystoned Kops are more than a match for the Royal Canadian Air Farce in any laugh battle. From Halifax to Vancouver and points in between, a lot of silly things have been happening.
First, to points in between: freedom of information requests have just pried a secret file away from the RCMP – a hundred-plus pages of classified information on a political party which once proposed paving the Bay of Fundy to create more parking.
The RCMP didn’t release the whole file on the Rhinoceros party – which also pledged to repeal the law of gravity. A number of pages were withheld for national security reasons.
The RCMP says their release could threaten the defense of Canada and handicap efforts to uncover “subversive or hostile activities” – for example, making bubble gum Canada’s national currency, another Rhino proposal.
The RCMP have a point. The Rhinos proposed bubble gum as a national currency long before we got the loonie, but Rhino policy-makers would surely have liked the loonie. It probably was a Rhino plot. The loonie became Canada’s national dollar after Canada Post – yes, what follows is true – lost the die for the original design.
This was clearly a “subversive or hostile” act by rhino operatives in the otherwise ruthlessly efficient Post Office. Did the Rhinos pave the die under the Bay of Fundy or, after repealing the law of gravity, simply let it float away as the first Canadian-launched satellite?
In Halifax, the regional police – alarmed by an apparently “subversive or hostile” sex advice column – warned local advertisers to pull ads from the Halifax entertainment weekly that carried the internationally syndicated column.
Last June, after police visits, Volkswagen Canada pulled its ad. This issue got to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, which ordered police to stop strong-arming local businesses.
This story should have produced howls of outrage. The local Gestapo didn’t merely take the law into their own hands. They made up their own anti-free-speech law, decided which speech needed suppressing, and enforced this through intimidation.
In roughly a nano-second, the Chief of Police should have apologized, disciplined the officers, and pledged that never-ever would any police officer assume the power to determine proper speech. It boggles the mind that our culture is such that officers would believe they had such authority. All the police will say is they’ve completed an internal investigation
The vast majority of police are in the game to enforce the law. In the line of duty, police often risk their lives for our protection. But police forces need to be properly policed as do accountants, lawyers, premiers and prime ministers.
That brings us to the biggest howler of all. The RCMP Public Complaints Commission hearing into the pepper-spraying of student demonstrators in Vancouver. This has all the elements of classic Victorian farce – mistaken identities, overheard conversations, odd or non-existent memories, and supreme silliness.
In the midst of the hearings, solicitor general Andy Scott privately said he knew who was going to “take the fall.” In a democracy, one normally prefers legal proceedings hear evidence before reaching a verdict. Scott was sitting near that classic plot device – a minor actor who overhears the conversation and reports it to more important players. Scott, himself, promptly forgot all about it.
Meanwhile, panel chair Gerald Morin helpfully suspended the proceedings because the pepper-sprayed students put up posters poking fun at them. Nothing humorous hear-hear. But then Morin was overhead saying he too already knew who was to blame, the RCMP – Scott’s victim of choice.
In a Oscar-Wilde-like non sequitur, Morin promptly blamed his boss, Shirley Heafey, for interfering with him when she suggested the students should actually have legal representation.
Then everyone resigned, Morin, both other panel members, and Scott. A million dollar inquiry collapsed. We’re set to spend another million on a new inquiry. This is value for money. Most comedies cost tens of millions of dollars.
The farce-like atmosphere may divert attention, but we should remember the serious issue at stake. It isn’t police brutality, the only issue the inquiry may address. The key issue is evidence Prime Minister Jean Chretien ordered police to suppress demonstrations to keep happy a visiting dictator, now unhappily deposed.
So step aside Royal Canadian Air Farce. We have plenty of yuks without you. But let’s not forget the fundamental issues behind these laughs. They all involve official efforts to suppress or spy on legitimate freedom of expression.