Activist in jail for hurling teddy bears at police

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Posted by on May 06, 2001 at 15:31:16:

The Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 5, 2001

'It makes me the creation of the media' As support mounts for the release from jail of Jaggi Singh, his role as a symbol for the left wing is one he says he never wanted

By RheAl SeGuin

QUEBEC -- Quite unwillingly, Jaggi Singh, a prominent activist in the fight against corporate globalization, is becoming a symbol of unity for Canada's divided left-wing movement. And as support broadens among labour unions, civil-rights groups and social activists behind the demand for his release from a Quebec City jail, the more difficult it is becoming for Canadian authorities to justify Mr. Singh's imprisonment for the past three weeks.

It is ironic because the 29 year-old activist, who has always denied being a leader of any movement, is accused of being exactly that -- the leader of a radical anarchist group. And because of all the media attention, he has become a personality, a label he despises but one which he says he has grown accustomed to in promoting his political ideals.

"It makes me the creation of the media," Mr. Singh said in an interview yesterday from the Orsainville provincial detention centre. "It's part of the dynamics, but I certainly don't cultivate it and I'm ill at ease with it and I don't exercise it."

Mr. Singh was arrested during a demonstration on April 20 at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, where 34 heads of state met to discuss a free-trade deal for the hemisphere. He was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon -- a catapult that was used to hurl teddy bears at riot squad police -- and with violating bail conditions imposed in connection with a charge related to an earlier demonstration in Westmount.

A Quebec Court judge denied him bail, arguing that by participating in the Quebec City protest, Mr. Singh had violated the conditions of his release. The ruling triggered a wave of protest across the country.

"It's clearly political. I haven't done anything to be in prison for this amount of time," Mr. Singh said yesterday.

And the arguments for keeping him in jail appear to grow weaker with each passing day.

Yesterday, a Crown prosecutor agreed in a Westmount court to drop the charges in the Westmount incident. And the court acknowledged that Mr. Singh's outstanding bail conditions applied only to demonstrations in Westmount.

"Given the fact that it appears that this may have been one of the factors that resulted in him being kept in jail, we consented to a stay of proceeding on the Westmount charges," Crown prosecutor John Donovan said yesterday.

When the news was broken to him, Mr. Singh said his first thought went out to his mother in Toronto who, along with his sister, has been worried and outraged by the events of the past three weeks.

Mr. Singh refuses to talk about his father, a Punjabi Sikh who drove a taxi in Toronto, where Mr. Singh was born, and who left the family when his son was still a child. He was raised by his Catholic mother, in the Pina Plaza area near Don Mills and Finch, where he moved at an early age.

He scored top grades at elementary school and at St. Michael's College, where he graduated before attending the University of Toronto's prestigious Trinity College on a scholarship. But he knew early on he didn't fit into the traditional mould of a rising academic star.

"University got in the way of my education," he said.

At university he encountered the "Apiscopal," a secret society made up of the sons and daughters of the elite of Canadian society, who at the time clashed with the up-and-coming immigrant students.

"The secret society that was elitist with elements that were racist at time," Mr. Singh said.

Along with other students of immigrant families, he rebelled against the established order. He refused to wear the traditional school robe in the dining hall or sing God Save the Queen. On one occasion during the 1991 Gulf War, he said, someone stood up in the dining hall and said: "Men of the college, stand up for our troops."

"I refused," he recalled. ". . .I was critical of the war machine."

Since the age of 17, Mr. Singh was sympathetic to anarchism, but it was at Trinity College that he said he became a serious intellectual anarchist.

"The label is not important to me. What is important is the spirit that promotes mutual aid and solidarity, anti-authoritarian ideas. I don't shy away from the label either. It's not chaos, it's not disorder, but a body of political idea."

He began to write extensively, publishing articles in the Varsity, the University of Toronto's student publication. He covered the Progressive Conservative leadership convention in 1993, hanging out with young Tories and gathering material on the right-wing ideology that motivated them for a critique of electoral politics and its futility.

And he often wrote about the injustices of Canada's immigration laws.

"He was at Trinity and he hated it because it was such a stuffy, elite school. He didn't fit," says Naomi Klein, who was editor of The Varsity and who witnessed first-hand Mr. Singh's polished style.

"I remember the first article he wrote. It was the only article that we didn't have to change a single word, it was so polished," she said.

After dropping-out of Trinity College in 1994, he later enrolled at the University of British Columbia in the linguistics program. By now he was determined to devote most his time to political activism. He participated in the anticorporate campaign in fighting the university's exclusive deal with Coca-Cola Co. In his fight against corporate culture, he would often say that "we live in a culture that looks like Disney, tastes like Coke and smells like shit."

His activism was quickly chanelled into opposition to the Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation conference in 1997. Mr. Singh had quit his full-time studies and focused almost exclusively at mounting the protest against the APEC meeting. His views on the type of opposition that should be used against APEC often clashed with those of the mainstream left-wing groups who had agreed to hold a parallel People's Summit.

Mr. Singh argued that the government was using the People's Summit as a way to co-opt the opposition and marginalize certain groups and ideas. It all came down to the ultimate choice between accepting to sit-down with the leaders or to fight them from the outside. Mr. Singh choice was unequivocal.

"To what extent can you convince a tiger to become a vegetarian," he said in making his case for a direct confrontation rather than siding with the more mainstream left-wing groups.

Few people remember the People's Summit in Vancouver, but everyone remembers the pepper-spray incidents by the RCMP against the more aggressive antiglobalization groups. In many ways the actions promoted by Mr. Singh achieved a far greater impact on the political consciousness of Canadians, which he has insisted was a prime objective of the protest.

He insisted that the Ant-Capitalist Convergence, of which he is a part, is a non-violent group. It embraces a direct confrontational "in your face" strategy against government authority in order to highlight political repression. But the group shares the same ideal as the other more mainstream goals, he said.

While Jaggi Singh would have been more than willing to work with the organizers of the People's Summit in Quebec City, he was ignored. The tensions ran deep and remained a serious obstacle to a concerted effort from the left-wing movement. And that is what remains so significant about the recent "Free Jaghi" movement that has sprouted throughout the country. The petition was signed by people who disagreed with Mr. Singh's style of political activism and the anarchist principles they represented, but were willing to stand-up to defend the right to freedom of expression. "It's a simple display of solidarity," he said.

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