Kumi Naidoo addresses supporters in the garden of Greenpeace's Toronto office as police look

Police look on as Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo addresses supporters in the garden of Greenpeace's Toronto office during the G20.

“the most massive compromise of civil liberties”
“a mass violation of civil rights”
“likely illegal and unconstitutional."

Sound like the elections in Haiti? The Ivory Coast perhaps?

Try Toronto, Canada. These words are taken from Ontario Ombudsman André Marin’s report Caught in the Act, on the use of a secret regulation during the June G20 Summit ostensibly to safeguard world leaders.

In reality, it was a government sponsored act to suspend civil liberties and to shut down legitimate dissent to the policies of these leaders. The Ombudsman called it "The most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history." His words, not mine.

The billion dollar security extravaganza that led up to the G8/G20 is increasingly been seen for what it was: the Harper Conservative government and police leveraging a meeting of international heads of state into a capacity building exercise for security forces to restrict opposition to the status quo. An opportunity to spend massive amounts of money on surveillance and crowd control equipment, spy on diverse communities of citizens and test drive oppression tactics. Coming out of the G20 the RCMP now own state of the art equipment like sound cannons to disperse crowds and the Toronto Police will own the closed circuit TV cameras for ongoing public surveillance.

We are living in a time when our civil liberties are being incrementally (at times drastically) restricted and where our democratic space is being shrunk. In Greenpeace Canada’s November newsletter I wrote the following column:

We hear from people every time we engage in peaceful direct action like a banner drop or a lockdown at a corporation’s headquarters.

A Montreal demonstration in support of the 'Tokyo Two', who were recently on trial for exposing corruption in Japan's whaling program.

We hear from critics who dismiss our actions as publicity stunts. We hear from supporters who thank us for bringing attention to an issue. And I personally hear from colleagues in the environmental movement, who know that our actions help move forward critical issues and campaigns.

Greenpeace is able to take direct action because of the independence granted to us by you, our supporters. Because of you we remain the foremost independent voice standing up for the environment.

But something is happening in Canada that needs our full attention. I hear it when our peaceful protests are framed as “acts of eco-terrorism.” I see it when I look at the cozy relationship between the oil industry and government in Alberta. And I witnessed it recently in Toronto, at the G8 and G20 summits, when hundreds of ordinary citizens were thrown in jail, not for acts of vandalism but as a preemptive move to stifle dissent. We’re witnessing the shrinking of our democratic space.

In a democratic society, individuals are free to voice opposition to government and corporate practices and policies. As Canadian writer John Ralston-Saul says, “citizen-based democracy should be noisy and filled with disagreements.”

But dissent and opposition are being painted as terrorism and anarchy by those who want to maintain control and continue with “business as usual.”

At Greenpeace we anticipate pushback when we take on powerful interests like Big Oil, the Alberta Government or the Canadian logging industry. Their well-funded efforts to discredit, undermine and silence opposition are a sign of our success.

But what we’re seeing now is something different: a deeper, global move to silence those with dissenting voices and the tactics of protest available to them. Mass media is increasingly one-dimensional, and politicians increasingly wield fear to reign in those they disagree with.

The environmental movement in Canada will be seriously threatened if our repertoire of tactics is reduced to lobbying, researching reports and participating in government roundtables.

From the suffragette movement to workers’ rights to the US civil rights movement, peaceful protest, non-violent direct action and civil disobedience have been instrumental in bringing about social change. The reaction of the state to these challenges acts as a direct indicator of the health of their democracies.

Democracy is a process, not a conclusion. Civil rights are not guaranteed; they are earned and need to be defended. We cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated. Speak up, and let your voice be heard. For our part, Greenpeace will continue to force sustainable solutions and expose those who defend the status quo. You have my word.

“The people who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the people who question power make a contribution just as indispensable.”
John F. Kennedy, 1963

Bruce Cox is the Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada.