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Sneaky demo squeeze
Why are cops circulating phony right-to-protest permit?
BY Matthew Mernagh

Differentiating between a religious festival and a stick-it-to-the-Man protest can be difficult these days.

What with raging grannies, rousing speeches, singing, dancing, drumming and chanting, how does one know whether one's at an OCAP demo or a save-the-soul revival? And why should it matter? Well, because when it comes to the grass around Queen's Park, some events might be allowed and some not.

I thought of this recently when marijuana enthusiasts tried to hold a Canabian Day "festival" at the provincial seat and were denied a permit from the legislature's Sergeant at Arms office.

Metro's finest shut the event down. Turns out "festival" is a category of happenings that requires millions of dollars of third-party liability insurance. Would the pot promoters have had better luck if they'd called themselves a demo? Not really. Even under the Libs, orgs need permission to congregate at Queen's Park. And they don't always get it.

Says Pamela Longhurst of the Sergeant at Arms office, "Not every event is stopped. It depends on the event, what they're doing. It's case by case." Ah, yes, discretion.

She goes on to say that this rule has been in place for "years and years." What's changed is that the office used to rely on MPPs to sponsor events, but now groups are supposed to come directly to the Security Service to ask for permission.

But getting permission from this office has become a very thorny problem, according to MPP Rosario Marchese's staffer Gissel Yanez.

"We used to just call and book," she says. "We could exert a certain amount of control and pressure. Now groups are dealing directly with the Sergeant at Arms and having problems. It doesn't make much sense. (Grassroots groups) are people who want to change the law, and now they are meeting with people who are upholding the law."

Yanez recalls that some organizers have been able to dance successfully to the Sergeant at Arms's tune, only to have the office rip the permission slip up later. The office has plenty of rules, including a guideline on illegal or "inappropriate'' signs or speeches. "Displays or speeches that would be frightening or otherwise inappropriate for minors are thus prohibited.''

And where do the police fit into this game of pick and choose? I speak to Mark Pugash, director of corporate communications for the Toronto police services, about the Canabian Day bust-up. He says organizers "applied for a permit, and it was refused by both the city and Queen's Park. If you don't have the permits, you can't have a protest."

Then he does a strange thing. He refers me to a police form called the Notice of Demonstration and strongly suggests this ought to have been filled out. According to the rinky-dinky type at the top of the form, the applying org "is required to ensure the safety of the participants and assist the police in preventing unwelcome and unauthorized participation in the demonstration."

But this is curious, because City Hall refused to pass a motion allowing police to force protestors to obtain permits. (This is quite apart from parade permits to close streets.)

Blake Webb of Councillor Pam McConnell's office confirms that the coppers are passing around a bogus form. The Notice of Demonstration is not mandatory, he assures me. What exactly is Julian Fantino's gang trying to pull here, sneakily cutting into the action despite council's no-meddling-in- the-affairs-of-protestors decree?

Naturally, more radical protest planners and those who don't have a full-time person on point to wade through the red tape aren't going to work within the Man's confines for any demo, anywhere. And why should they?

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