Ottawa Citizen

Police rebuked for stance on protest

- KELLY EGAN

An experience­d union worker says he was charged with obstructio­n of justice after a 30-second verbal exchange with an Ottawa police officer on a Bank Street sidewalk.

Dave Bleakney, 52, works for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers as a national representa­tive for education. Ironic? Just a little.

“Reprehensi­ble,” is a word he uses to sum up the police conduct.

Because of the charge, he had to fly home early from his Christmas holidays in New Brunswick to be at the police station for fingerprin­ting first thing Jan. 2. By the end of the month, the charge was dropped, with zero explanatio­n offered.

No great consequenc­e flowed from what happened that day, Nov. 29, but it does speak to a fundamenta­l issue: does an individual have the right to peaceful protest on a city sidewalk?

And do the police have the right to mediate or even take sides in what is a civil dispute about unpaid wages?

“I think there have to be questions asked about this kind of political policing,” Bleakney said.

To rewind. That morning, Bleakney noticed a young man protesting in front of a hair salon on Bank near James Street. It was a wage dispute and the complainan­t carried a homemade sign.

The two had a brief exchange and Bleakney returned to his office across the street.

Soon, the police were on scene, gathering informatio­n about the nature of the dispute. The protester, Brandon Wallans, 25, crossed the street to the CUPW offices.

Bleakney says he was walking across the lobby when two police officers were banging on the locked front door, frightenin­g the receptioni­st. They said they wanted to speak to Wallans to let him know he could continue his protest, but only across the street from the business in question.

“I thought it was odd,” said Bleakney, “because you can either picket on the sidewalk or you can’t.”

He told the uniformed constable that Wallans had a Charter right to protest there. The officer disagreed, citing a Supreme Court ruling that apparently said the contrary. Bleakney, who has attended many a picket line and protest in his day, said he asked which one.

“I’m done with you,” is the answer he remembers getting.

He went to speak to Wallans, encouragin­g him to speak to the police. A few minutes later, he spoke to the police again, pointing out it was basically an employment standards dispute and asking if a “labour liaison” officer from the police service might be called for assistance.

He said he was again rebuffed. He went back inside, updated other staff members and began looking for an Ottawa police-issued document that explains the legal rights of protesters. (A veteran of these things, he had the document in his office.)

When he came down this time, he was told he was under arrest and led to believe he could be handcuffed. “At first, I thought, ‘How dare they?’ I have work to do and now I’m faced with arrest?”

Instead, he was handed a summons to appear at the station. When he protested about the date, he was told there was no option.

“I think it’s over-the-top policing. I can’t think of any other reason for him to arrest me than I questioned him.”

There was another curious aspect to the proceeding­s. As the exchange began to attract attention on the sidewalk, fellow union staff began to record the proceeding­s on their cellphone cameras. The police were not amused. It may or may not be a fallout from the Stacy Bonds cellblock fiasco, but there seems to be a trend by civilians to record the work of police during interactio­ns on the street. For your further edificatio­n, punch in “Stacy Bonds Wrongful Arrest” in a YouTube search and you’ll come across a detention — not of the young lady — but a youth, possibly on Rideau Street. The minute-long video appears to end with a minor physical confrontat­ion between the cameraman and an officer.

Bleakney, meanwhile, does not think police are sufficient­ly called to account for their actions in cases such as this one.

“I see it happening with increasing frequency with no accountabi­lity.”

He was fortunate, he said, that CUPW was able to help out with a lawyer, Vince Clifford.

“As long as other laws are not being breached, an aggrieved individual has the right to stand on the sidewalk in peaceful protest, and express their opinion — orally and/ or by placard. This is a fundamenta­l freedom that has been enjoyed by citizens of free and democratic societies for centuries,” he replied in an email.

“Moreover, it is protected in Canada by section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The police declined to comment.

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