Amnesty International Canada

Ontario: There must be accountability for police actions

OPP must be held accountable for excessive and dangerous response to Tyendinaga land defenders

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Urge the Ontario government to conduct a thorough and independent review.

 

   
Premier
Doug
Ford
Government of Ontario
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“I was never so frightened in my entire life.” This is how Alberta Doreen describes the experience of having a high-powered rifle aimed at her by a panicked member of the Ontario Provincial Police. 

The terrifying incident happened in April 2008 during a land occupation and road blockades by members of Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation, near Belleville, Ontario.   

Although the land occupation and road blockades involved only a small number of community members – none of whom were armed --  the OPP responded by deploying more than 200 officers, including several officers with the Tactics and Rescue Unit (TRU). The TRU is tasked with responding to “the most serious threats to peace and order”. 

At one point, the situation deteriorated so badly that police, panicked by a false report that a rifle had been spotted, prepared to fire on the land occupiers and on bystanders. When Alberta Doreen arrived at the scene to check on the safety of her son, who was among the land defenders, she was prevented from entering the area by an OPP officer who pointed his rifle at her. 

Critically, there has never been any formal, independent review of how and why the police response went so badly wrong.  

In December, the UN Committee against Torture called on Canada to address this glaring gap in police accountability by ensuring that a thorough and impartial review is finally carried out. 

Join us in calling on the Ontario government to ensure that excessive use of force by police at Tyendinaga in April 2008 is subject to a thorough and impartial review, as called for by independent human rights experts at the United Nations.

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The federal government has acknowledged that it is responsible for allowing an area of land known as the Culbertson Tract to be unlawfully severed from the territory of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation. However, despite years of negotiation, there is still no agreement on how to set things right. In the meantime, the federal and provincial governments have failed to work with Tyendinaga to ensure that the community’s interests are protected while this land remains in private hands. 

Beginning in 2006, private development on the Culbertson Tract, including a quarry and plans for a new housing development, became the focal points of a series of protests and land occupations.

The decision to deploy hundreds of heavily armed officers, including members of the TRU, was a vast over-reaction and set the stage for excessive use of force. The OPP has never provided an adequate or credible explanation of why it was prepared to use lethal force against unarmed individuals peacefully exercising their right to protest and defending their rights as Indigenous peoples. 

Extensive research by Amnesty International has exposed numerous concerns over OPP conduct during the confrontation, including the fact that five men arrested by the OPP were held for hours in plastic restraints while in police custody. Nylon restraints or “zip ties” are only intended for temporary use by the police and are designed to painfully tighten if the prisoner pulls on them. If the deliberate misuse of nylon restraints was motivated by a desire to humiliate or hurt the men, officers violated international safeguards against cruel and inhumane treatment and might also have committed a criminal act under Canadian law. 

After Amnesty obtained video evidence confirming the misuse of plastic restraints, the OPP carried out a limited internal review. This internal review was so superficial that the OPP didn’t even attempt to talk to any of the men before declaring that it had no concerns over the actions of its officers. 

To the best of our knowledge, this totally inadequate internal investigation is the only formal review of any kind that has been taken into the OPP’s actions that day.

Police accountability is a crucial pillar of human rights protection, especially when it comes to the dignity and safety of groups like Indigenous Peoples that have been the subject of deep-rooted racism or discrimination. 

In 1995, an Indigenous land defender, Dudley George, was shot and killed by a member of the TRU at Ipperwash Provincial Park. At a public inquiry into that tragic incident held almost a decade later, the OPP offered assurances that new policies and procedures meant that from now on they would approach such incidents as “peacekeepers”. However, the implementation and effectiveness of these “peacekeeper” policies and procedures have never been subjected to independent evaluation, as recommended by Mr. Justice Sidney Linden, the Commissioner of the Ipperwash Inquiry. 

Amnesty International began investigating the OPP’s actions at Tyendinaga because of the disturbing similarity to police actions at Ipperwash. Moreover, the OPP’s policing of the Indigenous land rights occupation and protests at Tyendinaga appear to be a sobering lesson in how not to police such incidents. The response from both the OPP and the Ontario Government to evidence of serious failings and misconduct has been dismissive – which raises additional concerns about civilian oversight and police accountability.

 
 
 
 

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