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Police Question Friend of Olympics Critic Chris Shaw

Nursing student surprised at school by intelligence officers. Councillor calls it 'harassment'.

By Geoff Dembicki 5 Oct 2009 |

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee.

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Chris Shaw, UBC neuroscientist and author of 'Five Ring Circus'. Photo by The Blackbird.

Anti-Olympics critic Chris Shaw thinks Games security forces have him targeted. A recent incident suggests he may be right.

Last week, two intelligence officers waited for a 24-year-old Langara College student outside her classroom. She doesn't belong to a protest group. In fact, she knows very little about the Games. But she's friends with Shaw. And she said that's the only reason two plainclothes constables she'd never met called her by name, waited while she wrote a quiz and then rang her cellphone the next day.

That meeting is only the latest in a long line of police visits to anti-Games critics and the people that know them. Shaw says security forces have crossed a boundary. One Vancouver city councillor calls it harassment.

Police with big smiles

On Wednesday Sept. 30, Danika Surm received a strange greeting as she hurried to her biology class. Someone said "Hi Danika" in a very friendly tone. Surm appraised the man and woman standing before her in the hallway. They didn't really look like students. They were dressed too well, she said.

The woman introduced herself as constable Heidi Hoffman. Her partner, constable Jordan McLellan, had a big smile on his face. "Heidi said she needed to talk to me. I was just on my way to a quiz for biology. I told her it wasn't a good time. She was very insistent about when would there be a good time," Surm said.

Surm told the constables she had mid-terms to worry about and that this time of year is really busy. She left to write her quiz. When she finished the test, about ten minutes later, Hoffman and McLellan were waiting. A little resigned, Surm agreed to speak with the constables in an empty classroom.

"They said 'we know you're very good friends with Chris Shaw and we'd just like to ask you to tell us anything you know about him and his activities and associations," Surm said. The constables told her they were very concerned about Olympics security. That it was important they all work together to make the Winter Games as safe as possible. Hoffman played the tough cop while McLellan stayed warm and friendly, Surm said.

The talk didn't last very long. The young student didn't have much to tell them. They concluded the meeting with a request for Surm's cell phone number. She refused, and they left. The next day, Surm missed a call while in class. The message in her voice mail was from Hoffman, telling her to please call back. "It was a nice formality of asking me for my number," Surm said. "But they already had it."

Shaw's own encounter with police

Chris Shaw is, without a doubt, the most outspoken and well-recognized critic of the 2010 Olympics. He's written extensively about negative impacts of the Games, including a piece five years ago published on The Tyee. He's friends with leading activists in the Olympics Resistance Network. His name pops up almost weekly in 2010 media reports.

On June 2, 2009, Shaw was approached by two plainclothes police officers outside Tony's Coffee Shop on West Broadway. The officers asked him for a private meeting to talk about his opposition to the Olympics. He refused. Any talks about security and Games protest should be held in a public forum, he said, with media cameras and tape recorders rolling.

Ten days later, delegates at Play the Game, an international sport conference in England, condemned all such security force visits. The Coventry Declaration urged governments in Canada, B.C. and Vancouver, along with Games organizers and security foreces, to defend against any attack on freedom of speech. Vancouver city council endorsed the spirit of the document last July. But councillors voted to remove sections that could have been construed as criticism of Games security.

Anti-Olympics protestors say police have approached dozens of people opposed to the Games at their work and homes. The RCMP-led Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit (ISU), a $900 million behemoth funded with provincial and federal money, argues such visits are a legitimate tactic. Police need to know all they can about potential threats to the Games.

'They've crossed a boundary': Shaw

Even though Shaw knows he's on the radar of security forces, he was shocked that officers would visit his student friend at her school. Surm isn't even an activist. She's studying to become a nurse. Almost all her knowledge of the Olympics comes from him.

But even more alarming for Shaw is how officers managed to track his friend down. Where did they access her class schedule? How did they recognize her appearance? Why did they ask for her cell phone number when they already had it? "I'm getting the impression that security forces are extremely paranoid," he said. "They've crossed a boundary here. They are pushing pretty hard into Charter territory."

A spokesperson for Langara College said the school maintains a stringent policy on student information. Not even a close family member can access a student's file.

"The college policy about release of information is very clear," Ian Humphreys said. "We do not release information to anybody regardless of which agency they are ... I doubt I can give you information as to how the RCMP might have received any information about one of our students."

Both Hoffman and McLellan belong to the Joint Intelligence Group, an agency working with the Integrated Security Unit. Spokesperson Mandy Edwards confirmed their visit with Surm last Wednesday. But she was vague when asked how they'd identified the student and known to wait outside her classroom.

'A form of harassment': Councilor Cadman

"I can't answer that on respect of the investigators," Edwards said. "It's possible information led them to that location." The purpose of such visits is to gather intelligence about potential security threats. Somehow Surm's name came up, so officers wanted to talk to her, Edwards explained.

How about Shaw? Is he being targeted by security forces? "We're just looking at any potential plans that are in place to disrupt the games," Edwards said. She added: "Chris Shaw is probably the most vocal anti-Olympics person out there."

And what about allegations that security officers paid a recent visit to Shaw's ex-wife Sylvie Peltier in White Rock? "I know our officers are looking to speak to anyone who may have information so I can't confirm that that happened," she said. "I can say it's possible."

Coalition of Progressive Electors councillor David Cadman heard about the meeting with Surm last week. She phoned him right after it happened, asking what could be done. Cadman admitted that council doesn't have very much jurisdiction over the ISU. But he's concerned such meetings set a bad precedent.

"I'm beginning to see this kind of police intervention as a form of harassment," he said. "There's so many bigger threats out there for this Olympics. To be approaching a student mainly because of her association with Chris Shaw is not helpful."  [Tyee]

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