A loud, but peaceful, crowd gathered Sunday on Parliament Hill to oppose talks on continental integration while anarchists claimed responsibility for weekend vandalism against Ottawa businesses connected to the Security and Prosperity Partnership.
Between 1,000 to 2,000 demonstrators – guarded by a sizable police presence – got a head start on the North American leaders’ summit, which begins Monday in Montebello, Que. with meetings between Stephen Harper, George W. Bush, and Felipe Calderon.
The nascent partnership plan, which seeks to harmonize certain security and regulatory protocols between the three countries, is expected to figure prominently on the agenda.
“Rallies at Parliament Hill are notoriously difficult to draw large crowds and I was impressed … because there were events happening in so many other centres,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said.
She cited no-fly lists as one example of an “Orwellian” chill forming over North America.
“This is a very anti-democratic process,” May said. “Mr. Harper, as a minority prime minister, has no business giving away the sovereignty of Canada in these negotiations.”
Ottawa police and RCMP officers, buoyed by memories of protests during the G20 finance minister’s summit in November 2001 and the G8 in the summer of 2002, fanned out across downtown well beforehand. They were reinforced by Toronto, York, and Peel police units.
The Centennial Flame was covered by steel fencing and green tarp as a safety precaution. Public access to Parliament Hill was limited to the front lawn and steps, with officers and their video cameras and binoculars perched atop the Centre and East Blocks.
“This is a family-friendly, peaceful demonstration and I would ask that everyone respect these parameters,” demonstration organizer Celeste Cete told the crowd before marching on the Mexican and U.S. embassies.
Three men were arrested: a 21-year-old male charged with carrying a concealed knife, a 17-year-old young offender seized on an unrelated outstanding arrest warrant, and a 16-year-old charged with mischief for allegedly painting graffiti on the pavement during the march.
The protest line snaked along downtown streets before swinging around the U.S. Embassy to Parliament Hill.
Police escorts led the way on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle. Dozens of RCMP, Ottawa, and Toronto officers stood behind reinforced barricades outside the embassy as the demonstrators marched past curious tourists and Sunday market shoppers.
One group, mostly dressed in black with bandannas and balaclavas, left the main march and were carefully watched by authorities the entire time.
Postings to an anarchist website had detailed a series of attacks Saturday morning against Ottawa businesses associated with the North American Competitiveness Council, a corporate advisory group attached to the SPP.
Windows were smashed at the Bell Canada building, according to the anonymous authors. At two Scotiabank branches, the door locks were glued and the entrance walls were spray painted and paint bombed.
Ottawa police said no such incidents had been brought to their attention yet.
Sunday’s protest was serene by comparison; dogs and baby strollers were far more common than broken windows or tear gas pellets, the fear of police and downtown business owners.
The diverse crowd ranged from organized labour and the Council of Canadians to environmentalists, communists, and the Raging Grannies. Demonstrators were from as far afield as southern Ontario, Quebec, Vancouver, and Mexico.
A supportive message was read from 93-year-old William Commanda, senior elder of the Algonquin Nation of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. The in-person speakers included Council of Canadians chairwoman Maude Barlow and Chris Jones of the Canadian Peace Alliance, who called the SPP talks “horrible, incestuous negotiations.”
Kyle McQueston, 22, rode his bike three-and-a-half days from Toronto to demonstrate.
“The secrecy, the lies, the undemocratic approach,” the student and environmental activist said when asked about problems with the SPP.
A separate group of demonstrators started their “Bike to Bush” mission, a 71-kilometre ride from Gatineau, Que. to Montebello.
Two designated protest areas, each able to hold about 2,000 people, have been cleared near the Chateau Montebello. A video feed will beam the demonstrations inside for summit participants.
Protest flotillas are also planned on the Ottawa River with Gaetan Menard, secretary-treasurer of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, among those slated to pass the hotel compound on his own five-metre boat.
The City of Ottawa has cautioned residents to expect delays over the next two days, especially downtown. There were going to be some street closures during the summit and outdoor mailboxes downtown have been removed until Wednesday morning.
Airspace restrictions are also scheduled at the Ottawa airport both days as Bush arrives and departs. In Montebello, truck traffic on Hwy. 148 is being re-routed into Ontario.