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Where's your Olympic spirit? The Canadian police want to know

Civil libertarians are outraged over authorities' questioning of critics of the Games. 'If this had been China, that would be one thing. But this is Canada,' says a professor who got the shoulder tap.

February 11, 2010|By Kim Murphy

Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — Chris Shaw, an ophthalmology professor at the University of British Columbia, has made no secret of his misgivings about the Olympic Games in his home city.

The event is going to soak taxpayers and primarily benefit land developers who backed Vancouver's Olympic bid, he warned in several public forums and a book about the Olympics, "Five Ring Circus."

Shaw was walking into his office several months ago when two plainclothes police officers approached him, one of them holding his book. "Mr. Shaw, I want to talk to you. . . . Some of the things in here disturb me," he recalled one of the men saying.

In the following weeks, Shaw, his girlfriend and his ex-wife -- from whom he had been divorced for 15 years -- received phone calls from strangers with the same questions.

"Now, if this had been China, that would be one thing. But this is Canada," Shaw said.

Attempts to prevent Olympic dissent from turning into Olympic disorder have prompted a careful official vetting of critics of the Games in the last several months.

The quiet but persistent knocks on the door, civil liberties groups say, are part of a months-long operation conducted in the name of Olympic security that has left some Vancouverites wondering if they're still in the same country.

"There are many countries where if you speak out about your political views you can expect a visit from the police, but until the Olympics, we didn't think one of those countries was Canada," said David Eby, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Assn., which has taken to issuing almost weekly declarations of outrage since Olympic fever hit a high pitch.

Authorities are justifiably concerned about security for the Games.

Bud Mercer, head of the Vancouver Olympics' Integrated Security Unit, told the City Council in July that a search on the Internet easily turned up images of Olympic mascots with Molotov cocktails, the Olympic torch "Spirit Train" being pushed off its tracks, and a beheading accompanied by the slogan "Elementary to the art of war, cut off the head and the body will die."

"The ISU and the joint intelligence group that I'm responsible for have a job to do. Their job is to assess risk to the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Full stop," Mercer said in an interview.

"To do that job, they have to have discussions with individuals that come to our attention. Sometimes, those discussions are very short, because a simple discussion discounts or puts to rest a piece of information that we have, and there's nothing more required. Citizens of Canada have a right to say, 'No thank you,' and my officers won't cross the line," he said.

But Eby said that for some people, the questions alone are intimidating and an unexpected assault on the freedoms Canadians cherish.

"Dr. Chris Shaw is an ophthalmologist, a university professor. He's not exactly a rabid Marxist revolutionary or something like that. But his ex-wife was visited by the Integrated Security Unit. His friend, other family members. And the police ask the same question: 'What are Dr. Shaw's plans during the Olympics, where does he plan on being; can you give us any information?'

"The implicit message is that he's doing something wrong, that he's doing something that is worthy of police attention. . . . And when you have people's friends and families being visited in that manner, naturally they're going to be concerned about what activities their loved one is engaged in."

Suspicion has been cast on a wide variety of people.

Amy Goodman, principal host of the U.S.-based "Democracy Now!" radio news program, was stopped in November by Canadian border officials when she was entering British Columbia to speak at a benefit for community radio stations -- an event unconnected to the Olympics.

She and two co-workers were questioned for 90 minutes. Their car and laptops were searched, and a guard asked her for the notes she had prepared for her talk that evening. They were repeatedly asked if they intended to talk about the Olympic Games.

"You mean when President Obama went to Copenhagen to push for the Olympics in Chicago?" Goodman related later to Canada's CBC Radio. "He said, 'No, I'm talking about the Olympics here in 2010.' "

Goodman and her colleagues were allowed to stay in Canada for only two days.

Dustin Rivers, an aboriginal artist who has argued that the Games are "a very stark form of colonialism in modern times," said he discovered that police were reading his blog.

Then a few months ago, "they stopped by my house and said, 'I wonder if we could ask a few questions?' " Rivers said. "They wanted to know, what was my sense of the Olympics?. . . The one they kept pestering me about: If I knew somebody was going to get hurt because of the activists' [anti-Olympics] activities, would I inform them?"

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