Sticks, stones and broken bones

A lifetime of violent media has made me a difficult person to shock. Despite this, I can’t help but be surprised by a statement made in the Calgary Herald this Monday by a member of the university faculty.

It was in an article about Co-
Motion’s training camp, a place where people learn effective techniques for protesting the upcoming G-8 summit. It all sounds perfectly innocuous to me, with the organizer stressing non-violent protest as a means to influence policy. Just like Gandhi.

The writer then introduced the opinion of Barry Cooper, a Political Science professor here at the University of Calgary. This was presumably done to balance off this boring lefty peacenik with a right-wing hawk in the interests of journalistic objectivity, though the writer may have sought the professorial opinion of someone who doubtlessly knows something about the issues at hand.

"If you don’t like a policy, that is what government is for." Cooper began. "You can vote for people who will change it. These guys say they want to (protest) directly. Okay, do it directly, but you are reacting outside the agreed upon procedures for democracy and you deserve perfectly well to get your head beat in by the cops."

Upon reading this I whipped out my copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and flipped to section two. Here, I found a list of the expansive rights and freedoms enjoyed by all Canadian citizens, including the "freedom of peaceful assembly."

Now I know it is within the power of the government to abridge these rights and freedoms at times. However, any such abridgement must conform to the "Oakes Test" to be legitimate. In the interest of fairness, I will make an amateur application of the Oakes Test to Cooper’s proposal that we limit the freedom of peaceful assembly by beating up those trying to exercise it.

The first part of the test requires proof that the reason for any limitation is substantial and pressing. I’m not sure what "pressing" or "substantial" mean in this case but I assume they cover things like lynch mobs, neo-Nazi marches and other situations where there is a real possibility of serious harm to people or property. Performing a move called the "puppy pile"–which is essentially lying down to become immobile–somehow fail to conjure up the same sense of menace.

Next, the test requires that any limitations to a fundamental freedom be itself limited. Considering it isn’t lawful for a parent to strike a noisy and inconvenient child, it can also be argued that a violent response to noisy and inconvenient protesters is just as wrong.

The Oakes Test ultimately requires judicial review of any limits to fundamental freedoms. While I can’t read the mind of any judge who winds up confronting a pile of hippies with broken skulls, I suspect there is at least a chance that he/she might find such a response distasteful.

Even disregarding the Oakes Test, there is the fact we expect the police to carry themselves with decorum and not overreact to people trying to express their fundamental freedoms any more than they would shoot out the tires of someone parked in a handicapped zone.

I understand the Calgary Herald may have pulled Cooper out of context. Perhaps he was being whimsical or perhaps he was told that these people were likely to be the violent sort who gives protests a bad name.

Still, Cooper is on record advocating a very extreme response, potentially final, to anyone daring to question our government’s activities by means beyond voting in essentially predetermined elections.

To this, I can only advise caution on his part. After all, the freedom to form political parties also emanates from section two and perhaps one day one of his students will be calling for the police to stop the offices of "radical right wing" complainers and knock some sense into them.

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