The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) and its former chief had no choice but to allow thousands of trucks to flood the city’s downtown during the initial stages of last winter’s convoy protest in the capital, and feared stopping them risked making a bad situation worse.
That’s according to closing submissions published Tuesday by the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is probing the federal government’s decision on Feb. 14 to invoke the Emergencies Act to end the occupation of Ottawa and similar blockades elsewhere.
Twenty parties with standing at the commission have submitted their final arguments. They include submissions prepared by lawyers for the OPS, former chief Peter Sloly and the City of Ottawa.
During the public inquiry, several witnesses characterized the initial decision by OPS and Sloly to invite protesters to park their trucks on Wellington Street as a major blunder that paved the way for the three-week standoff that followed.
Policing experts interviewed by CBC, including Sloly’s predecessor Charles Bordeleau, have echoed that opinion.
According to Sloly’s submission, however, there was never an opportunity to halt the convoys that converged on the capital on the last weekend of January, some of which had travelled from as far as British Columbia and the Maritimes.
“The view now expressed with hindsight — that the OPS should have prevented all convoy trucks and vehicles from entering the downtown core of the city — was not realistic in light of the available intelligence, the protestors’ Charter rights and the logistics involved in barricading a city,” according to Sloly’s submission.
A ‘volatile tinderbox’
While some of the intelligence gathered by the OPS and its partner police agencies suggested a few of the protesters might try to linger past the first weekend, the “dangerous and volatile tinderbox” that developed was “unforeseen and unprecedented,” according to the submission.
“There was no intelligence available to the OPS that predicted the demonstrations, occupations, fortifications, and unlawful actions on the scope and scale that occurred during and after the first weekend.”
In fact, according to testimony from Deputy Chief Steve Bell, who temporarily took over command of the OPS after Sloly resigned on Feb. 15, blocking access to the city centre would have required the same number of officers that was eventually required to end the occupation — about 1,800, far more than the OPS had at its disposal.
Furthermore, denying the protesters vehicular access to Wellington Street risked creating new and potentially more serious problems, according to Sloly’s submission.
“Failing to provide protestors with meaningful protest sites would inevitably have resulted in similar or greater public safety risks in the downtown core — risks such as vehicles blocking Provincial highways and bridges, or hospitals and healthcare facilities; or a dispersal of trucks throughout the city’s neighbourhoods.”
Plan allowed 3,000 trucks
The initial OPS plan allowed for up to 3,000 trucks to enter the city’s core that first weekend, but according to its closing submission, “no one anticipated that the volume of vehicles would reach the level that it did.”
Based on their own intelligence, as well as that gathered by Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and other agencies, Ottawa police also believed the protesters would be “law abiding and cooperative with police,” so there was no sound reason to deny them access to the Parliamentary precinct.
Other protest groups had been allowed direct access to Wellington Street, though none with anything near the volume of large vehicles that arrived at the end of January.
Despite the intelligence reports suggesting the convoy participants were peaceful, however, some senior OPS officers worried about how they’d react to being denied access to the city’s downtown.
“Stopping the truckers and blocking them from entering the city had the potential to incite the protesters and create a volatile situation, especially given the distance that some truckers had travelled in order to exercise their right to protest,” according to the OPS submission.
In a Jan. 27 text message exchange with a subordinate, OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique also expressed concern over “the congestion that would be experienced in the City of Ottawa if trucks were prevented from entering the downtown core.”
By the following day, “the sheer number of vehicles made it impossible to stop them from coming downtown. The amount of resources required to block all access would have been massive,” according to the OPS submission.
City relied on OPS
In its closing submission, the City of Ottawa noted some senior city managers became aware of the convoys in mid-January, and on Jan. 21 received assurances from an OPS-led intelligence sharing group that most of the protesters would arrive, stay for the weekend and leave peacefully.
“Practically speaking, the City had no choice but to rely on OPS’ risk assessment,” according to the city’s submission.
Meanwhile, certain city councillors were picking up signals on social media that the protesters planned to occupy the capital, and the head of a local hotel association warned he’d been asked about the possibility of reserving thousands of rooms for as long as 90 days — information that was passed on to both the city and OPS, according to testimony at the commission.
“Leading up to the first weekend … OPS believed that the Freedom Convoy would be a traffic event,” according to the city’s submission.
“Contrary to the approach that the Toronto Police Service … and others would later take, OPS did not proactively lock down Wellington and the downtown core before the first trucks arrived.”
Witnesses told the commission that police in Toronto and other cities adopted that tougher strategy based on what they’d seen happen in Ottawa.
In fact, the decision to block vehicular access to Queen’s Park and the surrounding area “would not have been an acceptable tactic but for the events in Ottawa,” according to a summary of an exchange between Toronto’s police chief and an OPS deputy chief.
In its closing submission, the Ottawa Coalition of Residents and Businesses noted several police witnesses testified that “in hindsight, it was a critical mistake to allow heavy trucks and vehicles to enter the downtown core.”
The coalition also noted inconsistencies in some of the earlier testimony, including “conflicting evidence around why Convoy vehicles were allowed downtown,” as well as confusion over who made the final decision to allow them.
“To the extent that OPS believed — and publicly communicated — that they could not block truck access to downtown because of the Charter, the Ottawa Coalition submits that this appeared to convey a double standard for how different protests are treated by police,” according to the coalition’s submission.
“Many Ottawa residents and businesses perceived that police were giving significant latitude to Convoy demonstrators to engage in disruptive activities, where such latitude would not normally be afforded to other types of protesters.”
Justice Paul Rouleau is scheduled to deliver the commission’s findings and recommendations by Feb. 20, 2023.