Blue Line

Deal to move trucks could have ended ‘Freedom Convoy,’ Ottawa police officer says

October 27, 2022  By The Canadian Press

Oct. 26, 2022, Ottawa, Ont. – A proposed deal to move trucks out of residential neighbourhoods during a weeks-long demonstration against COVID-19 mandates could have been the ultimate way to end the protests, a senior Ottawa police officer told a public inquiry on Wednesday.

In the days before the federal Liberal government made the unprecedented move to invoke the Emergencies Act to held clear out the “Freedom Convoy” that had gridlocked downtown Ottawa in February, municipal officials, including then-mayor Jim Watson, and protest organizers had negotiated a deal to move some big rigs onto Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill instead.

Acting Supt. Robert Drummond of the Ottawa police told the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is examining the circumstances of the decision to bring in emergency powers, that police were not facilitating the movement of trucks.

The deal was negotiated between the city and the protesters, he said during his testimony on Wednesday, and officers were just helping to ensure the trucks were moving there safely.

Drummond said the deal was meant to shrink the protest’s footprint in downtown residential neighbourhoods and it “could have been” the solution to end the demonstration altogether.

Some trucks were moved in front of Parliament Hill or even outside Ottawa, but the deal was never fully carried out.

Drummond said the invocation of the Emergencies Act meant protesters were unable to keep moving their trucks onto Wellington Street, which was shut down to pedestrians and vehicles, and changed the circumstances of the deal with the protest organizers.

He also told the inquiry on Wednesday that there was concern that both current and former law-enforcement officers were involved in the protest, and that operational plans could be leaked.

At one point, those concerns prompted the corporate account of an officer to be shut down at one point, Drummond said.

On Tuesday, Supt. Robert Bernier, who oversaw the Ottawa police command centre for part of the “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations, told the public inquiry that police had tow trucks at the ready the day before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.

He also said he did not need the federal government to compel tow truck drivers to remove vehicles refusing to leave downtown, because 34 were already willing to do it, with the police having promised anonymity to the drivers and their employers.

Donnaree Nygard, a lawyer representing the federal government, challenged that assertion on Wednesday. She presented a letter the Ontario Provincial Police had sent to tow truck drivers on Feb. 17, telling them they could be compelled into service under the Emergencies Act.

Bernier said Wednesday he was not informed any agreement with the tow truck drivers had fallen through, and that he had never seen the letter before. He also said he did not believe police used the emergency powers that were available to compel towing companies to move trucks.

Asked directly if he agreed whether the emergency powers to compel towing services were helpful and beneficial, but not necessary, Bernier said yes, with a caveat that before Feb. 13 they were having challenges getting tow truck companies. By that date, he said, “I was satisfied that we were good.”

On Feb. 22, Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique wrote a letter to Mario Di Tommaso, the deputy solicitor general for the province, which was submitted as evidence to the inquiry. Carrique described the towing industry as “highly reluctant” to help police and as wanting “an unusually broad and high risk indemnification from the province for loss and damage.”

Bernier said that in the days leading up to the government’s triggering of the legislation, police had developed an operational plan to move out protesters that relied on existing laws. He said it was developed without any knowledge the Emergencies Act would be used and that he would have wanted to carry it out in the absence of those temporary powers.

An inquiry lawyer asked Bernier whether he thought the federal legislation was necessary to end the Ottawa blockades. The officer replied: “Hard for me to say.”

“I did not get to do the operation without it. I don’t know what complications I would have had, had it not been in place and I utilized the common law,” he said.

Bernier told the commission he agreed with the assessment of Ottawa’s interim police chief Steve Bell that the Emergencies Act was helpful in creating an exclusion zone. However, he said, police already had plans to create one of their own under existing laws.

A summary of an interview Bernier gave to the commission before his appearance at the public hearings shows he felt the emergency declaration may have convinced protesters to stay away from downtown Ottawa and be more compliant with police.

On Monday, the commission was also shown an email sent by RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office hours before the Emergencies Act was invoked, where she said she didn’t think police had exhausted all of their options.

Whether Trudeau’s government was right to trigger the never-before-used Emergencies Act to respond to “Freedom Convoy” blockades staged in downtown Ottawa and at several border crossings last winter is the central question for the commission.

It has scheduled public hearings at the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa until Nov. 25.

On Wednesday morning, Bernier also shared what police experienced when hundreds of officers began clearing protesters and their vehicles from the streets. That started on Feb. 18, three weeks after demonstrators first arrived.

Bernier testified that police adopted an ethos of taking a “slow, methodical and lawful,” approach to removing the crowds, because they “didn’t want to force a confrontation” and were unsure how protesters would react.

He said once they began moving in, police encountered resistance and as time passed protesters grew more “aggressive” and “volatile.”

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