By Jamie Hellewell

Like neighbouring head-of-state Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Jean Chretien may soon be issued a subpoena to testify before the law. The difference is Canadian critics accuse him not of sexual indiscretion, but of violating Canadians’ most basic rights to freedom of speech, expression and association. A violation, if proven true, that could cost him his job–pending a report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Public Complaints Commission.

Last November at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vancouver, protesters and RCMP officers clashed on a number of occasions. News reports lit up across the country with scenes of students pulling down barbed wire only to be met with the stinging immobilization of pepper spray. Arrests followed; some of the women were even strip-searched. At the time, outrage was expressed by students at the PM’s attitude toward the conflicts.

A number of students launched legal proceedings against the rcmp, charging it violated rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter. Facts soon emerged showing just how far security went in restricting protest.

"Protest at APEC was restricted in all sorts of ways–the presence of the police and military, the taped and fenced off areas," said University College of the Fraser Valley political scientist Ron Dart, who spoke at the protests.

Students were told they would be able to protest in designated areas close to where the leaders would be; at the last minute, however, the security periphery was pushed back. Charges allege that these restrictions went way beyond mere security measures, as in the case of Craig Jones, a University of British Columbia law student who is one of the complainants. Jones was arrested for displaying signs (later torn down) which read "Democracy," "Free Speech," and "Human rights."

In the past weeks, the issue has clawed its way back onto the front pages of the country’s news. Responsible for this renewed attention are revelations by rcmp spokespersons that the Suharto’s body guards were heavily armed and believed ready to shoot at protestors they saw as embarrassing their leader. Moreover, the PM’s office is being accused of interfering in rcmp security arrangements and sacrificing protestors’ rights.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that Canadian citizens’ civil liberties were suspended at apec to ensure a ‘comfort’ zone for Suharto, not a ‘security’ zone’," said New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Svend Robinson.

Reform Party MP Jim Abbott said the government’s actions at apec show clear examples "of the kind of trampling on the Charter of Rights."

Chretien and his Liberal caucus have avoided commenting on the issue, saying that it is must let the inquiry do its work.

The rcmp Public Complaints Commission, which began hearings Oct. 5, has gathered a mass of documents from the government. Officially the Commission’s task is to examine complaints against 40 rcmp officers, but the reason it has drawn so much attention is interest in how deeply the PM was involved in security arrangements.

"The Prime Minister’s fingerprints are all over this," said Abbott, during a break in the second day of public hearings last Tuesday. "What we see in document after document is that the Prime Minister and his office were interfering in security measures at apec."

Parts of the documents Abbott is referring to have been leaked to the public, including these excerpts:

"Do what we can to prevent embarrassment. [Censored] don’t want to see any demonstrators. PM will want to be personally involved." (Minutes of an interdepartmental meeting taken by Privy Council Office official Patricia Hassard, Oct. 29, 1997.)

"I have directed my officials to spare no effort to ensure that appropriate security and other arrangements are made for your stay in Canada as our guest." (Letter from Mr. Chretien to Suharto, Oct. 3, 1997.)

"[PM aid] Jean Carle does not want the demonstrators close at all!" (Note by rcmp Inspector Bill Dingwall, Aug. 27, 1997.)

"PMO had expressed concerns about the security perimeter at UBC, not so much from a security point of view but to avoid embarrassments to apec leaders." (Note from summit organizer Robert Vanderloo to his staff, Sept. 19, 1997.)

It is documents like these that the students’ lawyers are using to convince the Commission to issue blank subpoenas, which would allow them to force Chretien to testify.

"The government’s lawyers are arguing that the PM should not be subpoenaed," said Abbott, describing the events inside the hearing. "Some of the arguments are absolutely bizarre. The PM’s office is trying to suppress the truth about the role of the Prime Minister."

While there has been much activity on the political front, the Commission itself is proceeding slowly.

Abbott said the Commission’s report won’t be out for "months and months; six months at least."

If it turns out there is strong evidence to support the claim that the PM’s office directly interfered with security arrangements and violated the Canadian freedoms, he could lose his position.

"The PM would be forced to step down–without a doubt," said Abbott.

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