The RCMP last week forced a plane flying over Ottawa to land, as the plane was apparently flying in restricted airspace near Parliament Hill. The plane flew a banner promoting a website, “Stephen Harper nous déteste.ca” (Stephen Harper hates us). The plane was hired by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) to carry the message. Earlier this summer, I wrote a piece arguing that it was inappropriate for civil servants to wear buttons carrying this message in their workplace; political servants must remain politically neutral in the course of their work. Likewise, I was critical of Brigette DePape when she openly protested Harper’s policies during the Throne Speech.
It is not the content of these sorts of political messages that should be criticized, but rather the manner in which they are presented. PSAC had legitimate grounds to carry out the protest in this manner. They were flying a message which certainly conformed to the law and flew within legal boundaries. The message criticized the Prime Minister. At www.stephenharperhatesus.ca, PSAC argues that public service cuts will affect all Canadians.
The purpose of this column is not to argue which side is correct. Rather, we should all be worried at the RCMP’s curtailing of free speech. At the onset, the RCMP requested the pilot to land because they were flying in restricted air space. Yet the private company which provides air traffic services in Canada confirmed the plane never breached a restricted fly zone in Ottawa.
The pilot states that the RCMP told him that the message on the banner could be construed as hate speech. The RCMP denies that there was a political basis for grounding the plane, arguing only that it appeared to be flying at a low level and posed a security risk. If the pilot’s claim is true, and the RCMP did tell the pilot that his message could be interpreted as hate, it poses a great threat to public faith in in the RCMP. The police must have a high degree of independence from the government and should not intervene in political affairs. The Criminal Code section relating to hate dictates that public statements inciting hatred must be made against a group and that they be “likely to lead to a breach of the peace.” It is clear that PSAC’s banner does not fit this criterion.
Professor of law Kent Roach summarizes the concern nicely: “[…] the idea that the police are directed by the government of the day raises concerns about improper partisan concerns influencing or appearing to influence the machinery of justice.” It is crucial that decisions undertaken by the RCMP are not done to achieve a partisan advantage for the government.
This is not the first time the RCMP has been seemingly giving partisan advantages to political parties. In the 2006 election, the RCMP launched a probe of the Liberal announcement regarding income trusts. Slightly prior to the announcement, income trusts spiked, prompting an investigation into leaks. In response to a letter by an NDP critic, the RCMP released Ralph Goodale’s name to the public. The force later admitted that this was not keeping with past practices, which raised a question of bias. At the 1997 APEC summit, the RCMP were criticized for using pepper spray and strip searches against protesters. An inquiry found the government tried twice to interfere with police operations. At one point, the RCMP commissioned research which found numerous positive impacts for Insite, the safe-injection clinic in Vancouver. A media release was planned, but the RCMP backed out with only a few days’ notice. John Geddes argued in Maclean’s (2010)that coming forward with this information would have been politically awkward because of the Conservatives’ commitment to shut down Insite. At Stephen Harper’s campaign rallies during the 2011 federal election, the RCMP assisted the Conservatives in evicting people from campaign rallies based on partisan affiliation. The force agreed that it had overstepped its mandate in doing so; they did promise to restrict their involvement to matters involving security.
In instances of unfair police activity which gives a partisan advantage to a political actor, society must ask: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchmen?