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Friendly police response to protests raises questions among Canadians

Ottawa police are ready to crack down on protests that have brought Canada’s capital to a standstill, but after three weeks of limited enforcement, footage of officers fraternizing with protesters has some Canadians questioning the softness of the protests.

In particular, many people on social media contrast the police conduct during the truckers’ protests with the displays of force seen in other recent protests, particularly by Indigenous people.

A social media video, filmed by a protester from the passenger side of a vehicle on February 12, showed an Ontario Provincial Police officer telling a man and a woman through an open window that he was supporting their cause. Provincial police have launched an internal investigation into the officer’s conduct, a spokesperson confirmed to The Times.

At the border blockade in Coutts, Alta., where police seized a cache of weapons and made 13 arrests on Monday, video circulated online showing Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers hugging and shaking hands with protesters as they they dispersed.

“It was amazing to me. I can’t think of an equivalent situation where the police would have been so supportive of the protesters, especially in the context,” said Lesley Wood, associate professor at York University, Toronto, who studies social movements in policing.

Although she said the latest pandemic protests were not equivalent in composition and tactics to the defense of Indigenous lands or the Black Lives Matter protests, differences in race, political orientation and trust in law enforcement could affect how the police perceive a crowd.

Groups like racial or ethnic minorities who have historical reasons to distrust the police are more likely to be perceived by officers as uncooperative or threatening, and are much more likely to face a militarized and aggressive response , said Professor Wood. Groups, like current protesters, that include large numbers of former police and military personnel are more likely to receive friendly treatment.

Many Canadians have contrasted the handling of the protests with last year’s heavy-handed response to protests aimed at protecting ancient forests in and around Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were filmed ripping off protesters’ Covid masks before pepper spraying them.

The differences are real, but Canadian police have generally been slow to step up in response to civil disobedience from any group, said Howard Ramos, a political sociologist at the University of Western Ontario.

Protests in Fairy Creek, for example, lasted about a year before police stepped up enforcement. And he noted that after the Wet’suwet’en First Nation blocked pipeline workers from entering disputed lands, police failed to mobilize to make arrests for nearly two years after obtained an injunction, according to the RCMP.

“But at the same time, there are clear instances where the level of sympathy shown to some of the protesters is uncharacteristic, to say the least,” Prof Ramos said.

Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, cautioned against viewing Canadian police as a monolith, but said some police behavior during protests sends a negative message to the public.

“It may not be an insurrection,” he said, “but it is certainly an attack on the rule of law and an attack on democratic tradition.”

Ian Austen in Ottawa contributed to the report.

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