Who owns “the peace”? You, me, the cops, or John Lennon?
I felt sorry for my many friends who live in Toronto, who during the last week of June 2010 had to endure the spectacle of the G-20 Summit Conference in their city, which no doubt caused a massive disruption to their lives and the city’s commerce, aside from costing the taxpayers of Canada over $1 billion in costs associated with security for hosting the event.
Of course wherever our world leaders congregate to do whatever it is they do at these conferences, protestors are right behind them, doing whatever it is they do to draw attention to issues worthy of social change. In the case of the G-20 Summit, some protesters protested quietly, others protested loudly. Some people who may or may not have been protestors smashed windows and set a car on fire. Without determining who was responsible and for what reasons, this behaviour not surprisingly triggered a serious response from the police and resulted in approximately 1,000 arrests, and the virtual suspension of civil rights during this period. Adding fuel to the fire was the Ontario government’s enacting of a regulation pursuant to the Public Works Protection Act, which made a sizeable chunk of downtown Toronto a “no-fly zone” for protestors and public alike.
There continues, to this day, an ongoing debate about the propriety of the police conduct, and whether they overstepped their bounds. However, until proven wrong, the right of the police to maintain the peace as they see it is a power firmly entrenched in both our history and our criminal law.
Canada wasn’t even a legal country until 1867, when our British rulers determined we were mature enough to handle most of our own affairs. Our repatriation from England came under the British North America Act, the title of which could only serve as a constant reminder of our debt to our foreign overlords. In that statute, the Brits essentially told us how to organize a country, and delegated issues related to criminal law to the domain of the federal government. Arising from this was the very first Criminal code of Canada, enacted in 1892. As a literary document, the criminal code has as its core themes the notion of respect for public order and for peace, all underlined by loyalty to The Queen and those who serve her. And to make sure we remember who is (notionally) in charge here, our laws do not become laws until they receive “royal assent” and the blessing of the Queen’s representative in Canada, the Governor General.
So under Canadian criminal law if it alleged you screwed up, it is you against The Queen. Most people would not want those odds. There are many ways that you can piss off the Queen. On the most serious level, you could engage in sedition, piratical acts, mutinies, or you could commit the offence of “alarming” the Queen. On a less serious level, you can unimpress Her Majesty by robbing, assaulting or ripping off her loyal subjects. Serious business, yes, but the one thing Her Majesty wants is what we all want: peace. The notion of “the peace” permeates the criminal code and is one of its core values. Obviously it is a fairly serious criminal wrong to riot in the streets; it is also criminal wrong to simply cause a disturbance, by shouting, singing or swearing in a public place. And although causing a disturbance may be one of the least serious offences in the Criminal Code, an even less serious criminal wrong is committed when a person commits a breach of the peace. In fact, breaching the peace is so incredibly non-serious that it does not even result in a criminal charge—what it does, though, is create in the police a power of arrest and detention. Of the 1,000 arrests at the G-20, over 70% were for breaching the peace, an offence so low on the totem pole of offences it doesn’t even warrant an appearance before a judge.
The constabulary that work for Her Majesty have a special name—you might think their name is the police. Wrong. Their name is “peace officers”. The phrase “police officer” rarely appears in our criminal code, rather the more expansive term “peace officer’ is used. While all cops are peace officers, so are jail guards, customs officers, mayors, reeves and even pilots. Our laws are enforced by peace officers, not police officers. Punch a cop in the head, and you will be charged with “assaulting a peace officer”. Lie to a cop, and you will be charged with “obstructing a peace officer”. It hardly seems surprising that the core job of a peace officer is, well, maintaining the peace, a peace that shines like a beacon from Her Majesty through to the lowliest of her subjects.
Civil unrest is directed at that sovereign peace. A disturbance is created. Attention is paid. For some, it may be a badge of honour to be arrested as part of a protest, to cause a servant of Her Majesty to put pen to paper and note, for the record, that all is not well in the kingdom.