Volume 91, Issue 95

Friday, March 27, 1998



Public inquiry called over student protest

By Dave Yasvinski
Gazette Staff

Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will be brought before a public inquiry in Vancouver to account for their treatment of student protestors during last November's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The inquiry, set to take place April 14, has been called by the RCMP's public complaints commission in response to 47 complaints by student protestors unhappy with the way they were treated by the police at the summit. The inquiry sets the stage for three separate lawsuits filed by protestors against the RCMP that have yet to go to court.

Students protested the Nov. 25 summit because they were unhappy with the presence of Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Indonesian President Suharto on their campus. RCMP officers used pepper spray on students when they tried to cross a fence into a security zone set aside for the world leaders.

However, student Alissa Westergard-Thorpe, who attended the protest and is a spokesperson for one of the groups filing a lawsuit, said the students didn't do anything wrong. "It was a peaceful protest, nobody breached the security zone."

Westergard-Thorpe said the police began pepper spraying and abusing protestors. She added she is glad a public inquiry has been called but is not optimistic that justice will come from it.

"I've looked at other rulings handed out by the public complaints commission and it is not good. They've shown a real tendency to protect the RCMP."

Jessica Escribano, director of student affairs at the University of British Columbia, said the protestors have the full support of the university's administration and student body. President Martha Piper was among those who launched a complaint against the RCMP regarding their behaviour during the summit.

The president's office also gave $5,000 to the undergraduate and graduate students' councils to help student protestors with the legal costs of the upcoming lawsuits.

Sgt. Russell Grabb, spokesperson for the RCMP in Vancouver, said this hearing is only one of the steps being taken to investigate the behaviour of police at the protest. "An internal task force has also been formed of six officers to investigate the possibility of criminal activities by officers," he said.

He added the upcoming inquiry will address the complaints made by protestors, a dozen of which could fall under the criminal act.

Westergard-Thorpe said her biggest concern is that the RCMP's lawyers at the inquiry will be paid for by the federal government, but the protestor's will not – leaving them to defend themselves.

Westergard-Thorpe said she has more hope justice will be served when the lawsuits go to trial because the students will have legal representation. "I'm not interested in any empty apologies. I would like to see the guilty officers go to jail – I know they won't, but they should."

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Copyright The Gazette 1998