Some of the most striking images from the global demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality have been set to a dystopian backdrop by indiscriminate use of tear gas for crowd dispersion.
The Takeaway: Tear gas is a chemical weapon banned in warfare for causing unnecessary suffering. It can be lethal to those with underlying health conditions and public health officials warn it can accelerate the spread of COVID-19. The Canadian government should act proactively and ban its use.
- The White House Secret Service admitted to using the gas and pepper spray to clear demonstrators so that President Trump could indulge in his now infamous photo-op.
- Medical experts in Montreal decried the use of tear gas to disperse protestors as inflating the risk of COVID-19 spread due to the chemical agents in gas causing people to become teary-eyed and cough.
- American cities such as Seattle & Dallas have suspended the use of tear gas.
The Canadian angle: There are examples of tear gas being used as a method for crowd dispersal outside of the recent Montreal demonstrations:
- 2015 anti-austerity, student protests in Quebec city were broken up by the police through the use of tear gas. An 18-year-old female student was struck by a tear gas canister, later initiating a lawsuit against an officer.
- The 2010 G20 summit was met with anti-poverty protests. More than 20,000 police, military and security personnel were brought in to disperse the crowd using tear gas and making over 1000 arrests.
Riot Control Agents: Tear gas and pepper spray are both categorized as riot control agents. Both of these are toxic chemicals intended to produce a rapid sensory irritation or disabling physical effect in a short time.
Banned in War, Permitted against Protesters:
- The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention put a ban on the use of toxic chemicals as weapons “for the sake of humankind”, in part because they cause unnecessary suffering.
- The United States objected to the Convention banning the use of these chemical weapons for domestic use, most other countries conformed to the American position.
- In the 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia famously claimed that it goes against the basic humanity and commonsense to prohibit weapons in international conflict, but not in civil wars.
- Tear gas is indiscriminate – affecting innocent bystanders and has been known to cause significant long term health complications.
The COVID angle: Recently, over 1300 American medical professionals signed an open letter calling for police to stop using chemical agents on protestors during the pandemic.
- The coronavirus spreads through droplets projected into the air when people cough, sneeze or breathe.
- Tear gas causes victims to cough and choke violently, often removing their masks as they do so leading to huge risk if demonstrators are infected.
- On top of this, the irritations caused by chemical agents can weaken a body’s ability to resist a COVID-19 infection.
5 years ago and following his decisive election victory, Justin Trudeau stood in-front of a passionate crowd and stated:
Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years. Well, I have a simple message for you,
Reflecting on the past three weeks of peaceful demonstrations around the world and the often overzealous police response to them, now would be a great time for Canada to show its compassion and lead on a major issue.
- Banning the use of chemical agents for crowd control in Canada would show leadership on the world stage.
- Canadians who want to exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly should not be fearful of being dispersed with weapons banned in warfare.
In Parliament: Hamilton Centre MP Matthew Green sponsored a petition, currently with over 7000 signatures, calling for the ban of tear gas calling its use an example of creeping militarization of police in Canada.
- During a June 10th special committee meeting on COVID-19, Green brought up the issue with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asking whether he would move to ban chemical agents.
- Blair, who was Toronto chief of police during the 2010 G20 protests said, “Canada has perhaps one of the most rigorous and stringent policies and controls over the use of such devices and they are very rare in Canada and should be very rare“, seemingly avoiding the question.
The Bottom Line: If Canada wants to portray leadership on the world stage, it must enact real policy to deal with some of the issues being highlighted by the ongoing anti-racism and police brutality protests.
The use of tear gas is banned in conventional warfare, cities in the US have already implemented temporary prohibitions to its use, the health risks of the chemical agents are well known. Its use should be banned in Canada.
- Insights for Canada: George Floyd and the Anti-Racism Revolution | Op-Ed
- Protest Movements in the time of COVID-19