Life after the G20 protests

Two activists who spent 24 days in custody are out and talking—and the police are still listening

Nicholas Köhler and Stephanie Findlay
Darren Calabrese/CP/ Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Leah Henderson was in bed when she heard the police break down her front door and tell Alex Hundert, her fiancé, and Mandy Hiscocks, the couple’s friend and fellow activist, to hit the floor. It was just after 4 a.m., and Henderson, who is 25, had a second or two to wonder whether she should get her pants on; when she saw the red dot of a gun scope bounce down the hall toward her, she decided against it.

This was in the early morning of June 26, the day that protests against Toronto’s G20 summit would devolve into a chaos of smashed windows and blazing police cruisers, much of it wrought by militant Black Bloc demonstrators. Crown prosecutor Vincent Paris has described Henderson, Hundert and Hiscocks, part of a small group of activists arrested during pre-emptive raids that day and now facing G20-related conspiracy charges, as “executives” of an anarchist group that helped organize the havoc. Their arrests, he added, followed a 14-month police investigation.

Now, after 24 days in custody, Henderson and Hundert are out on bail—$100,000 apiece—and each face nine charges, including conspiracy to assault a peace officer and conspiracy to obstruct justice. (Hiscocks, 36, faces outstanding charges and is out on $140,000 bail; she now lives under house arrest at her sister’s Ottawa home.) They are serious charges—Hundert faces a count of counsel to escape lawful custody—commensurate with the part authorities say they played in planning violent political protests that caused property damage into the hundreds of millions of dollars and triggered the arrests of over 1,000 people. The Crown has appealed the couple’s bail, a rare gambit lately seen in terrorism cases; the matter is slated for Superior Court on Aug. 19.

Yet during an interview with Maclean’s at Hundert’s mother’s home in Toronto’s Earls­court district, where Henderson is under house arrest, they present themselves as polite and articulate—social justice activists whose deep concern with both Aboriginal self-determination and the environment approaches the religious. With their chunky black spectacles, tattoos and long hair—his is worn in a ponytail—they accept the prospect of more jail time with almost martyr-like resignation. So severe is their anti-colonialist philosophy that they call themselves “settlers.” Such sympathy with militant First Nations groups is a common thread among Canada’s leftist radicals.

They refuse to discuss their roles in the G20 rampage, citing a publication ban, and will not comment on the mayhem; yet they stop well short of condemning it. Hundert is 30 and under house arrest at the home of his father, a Toronto health care consultant. His mother is a social worker who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University, where Hundert himself studied global studies and religion. A former Whistler, B.C., ski bum, he did not become deeply involved in radical politics until he took part in a barricade that members of the Grassy Narrows First Nation, north of Kenora, Ont., set up in 2006 to protest nearby logging. He went on to work with Aboriginal activists during the Caledonia land claim that year and, in the ramp-up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, participated in a Guelph, Ont., protest in which an Olympic torchbearer was knocked over mid-run. Henderson, who met Hundert at the Grassy Narrows actions, which she helped organize, is from a left-leaning Edmonton family, and has been quoted on political issues as a protester in local newspapers since her early teens. A paralegal, her income pays the couple’s bills.

Weeks before his arrest, Hundert told the Toronto Star he had been approached by CSIS officers wondering about his plans for the G20. He refused to speak to the agents. Yet he may have already given them a good idea of what his intentions might have been. Writing on the left-leaning, he defended the Black Bloc, calling it “a wrecking-ball tactic that makes space for more mainstream or creative tactics,” concluding: “People and communities are under attack and it is time to fight back. If you’re not willing to stand up and fight, or to support those who are, please at least get out of the way.”

The story of the couple’s stay in prison can sound at times like an ironic retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. Arrested at gunpoint, then handcuffed—the police eventually put Henderson’s pants on for her—the trio began hearing their cellphones ringing madly as they sat outside the couple’s rented Bloor Street apartment in a police van; their fellow activists elsewhere in the city were also being raided. Henderson and Hundert were the first to arrive at the east Toronto film studio that police used as a temporary G20 detention centre—a place the size of a football field made all the more cavernous because it was still empty. Later, transferred to prisons in Milton, Ont., Hundert read the Bible, did pushups and watched World Cup soccer. Henderson and the other female G20 arrestees passed the time doing yoga and, out of bits of paper and empty sachets of sugar, fashioned a makeshift version of the Settlers of Catan board game.

They argue the charges and the police response to the G20 protests reflect a growing tendency in Canada to criminalize political dissent. Last week, after seeing the couple quoted in news reports—relatively innocuous statements in keeping with Hundert and Henderson’s anarchist bent—officers called their parents, who are acting as sureties, to warn that the couple risked breaching their bail conditions and could be rearrested. According to the couple, the police told the sureties that direct quotes in news reports posted online could be interpreted as attempts to communicate via the Internet, or as an attempt to organize public demonstrations, both violations of their conditions. “The conditions don’t prohibit people from speaking to the media,” OPP Inspector Dave Ross says. “It was what was being said that was viewed as being a violation of the bail conditions.” Counters John Norris, Hundert’s lawyer: “It is unusual to have bail terms interpreted this way. It goes well beyond the bail orders and anything that the police ought to be doing in a constitutional democracy.”

Other oddities have cropped up as part of the G20 prosecutions. There is the matter of the temporary Public Works Protection Act regulation that authorities said gave police a mandate to search and demand ID from anyone coming within five metres of the G20 security fence. It emerged later that the law never afforded authorities that option, and that police and the Ontario government neglected to correct the misapprehension until after the summit. When 31-year-old Dave Vasey, the only person charged under the rule, arrived at court last week with his summons to appear, he found his charge had vanished from the computer system. “We were all excited to go to trial,” says Vasey, a York University graduate student. “That it was lost was pretty convenient for the powers that be.”

Then there is the 53-year-old man, Gary McCullough, whom police arrested a day before the G20 summit began after discovering he was hauling a crossbow, a chainsaw and jerry cans in a homemade box strapped to the roof of his car. Though police later said his arrest had nothing to do with the G20 and even suggested he would not be charged, McCullough remains in jail in Milton over a month later and now faces one count of weapons dangerous. His defence lawyer, James Carlisle, says McCullough, who lives in a rural area north of Toronto, is a diagnosed schizo­phrenic who would in any other circumstance have been quickly released on bail. Yet Carlisle says the case has been “coloured” by the G20, not least because the matter continues to be handled by the special team of Crown attorneys tasked with the G20 prosecutions.

(The complexities here can be almost laughable. Rachelle Sauvé, a G20 protester from Peterborough charged with obstructing police and wearing a disguise to commit an indictable offence, must have had some satisfaction when a Peterborough, Ont., newspaper printed a clarification headlined “Not in costume” explaining that an article stating she’d been “wearing a clown outfit when she was arrested” was incorrect. “Sauvé says she wore several costumes throughout the week to stand out,” it says, “but was not in a costume at the time of her arrest.” Maclean’s also reported Sauvé was dressed as a clown.)

Meanwhile, Henderson is looking forward to Sept. 4, when she will travel to Edmonton to attend her younger sister’s wedding as maid of honour—a trip that required some negotiation with the Crown. Still, she is not permitted, as per the conditions of her bail, to spend time alone with her own fiancé. One or other of their sureties must chaperone the couple.