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Ottawa police contact trucker convoy leaders

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Ottawa police say they have been in touch with leaders of a trucker convoy over weekend protest plans in the capital and are getting ready for several scenarios.

Chief Peter Sloly told the police services board Wednesday that he is working with the RCMP and intelligence bodies to prepare for the protests against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers.

Sloly said the convoy organizers have been co-operative in telling police about their plans for the protest, which he predicts could last several days, but the situation is evolving rapidly.

Deputy Chief Steve Bell said police are “tracing parallel groups” that are preparing to join the truckers, as well as counter-protesters, and are monitoring social media.

Ottawa police estimate there could be up to 2,000 demonstrators, but this number is shifting quickly, and warn residents against travelling downtown during the event.

Sloly said while police support the right to peaceful protest, officers will be prepared to move protesters out of the demonstration zone should the situation become violent or threatening.

Some supporters of the convoy, including some Conservative MPs, have taken to social media to warn the vaccine mandate for truckers will leave store shelves empty. Some have gone so far as to predict Canadians will starve.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has assured Canadians there’s no reason to fear food shortages will result from a small minority of truck drivers refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate.

In an interview, Alghabra said the large grocery store chains and other retailers have assured him they have plenty of goods to provide their customers, despite some labour shortages and supply chain bottlenecks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, he said there’s been no “measurable impact” on the number of trucks crossing the border since the vaccine mandate went into effect on Jan. 15. Last week, he said almost 100,000 trucks crossed the border — about the same as usual for this time of year.

“I don’t want to minimize the fact that we have to remain vigilant and work together to address these issues (of supply chain disruptions),” Alghabra told The Canadian Press, adding he plans to hold a summit on the issue with retailers on Monday.

“But this notion that we’re going to starve is really unfortunate and does disservice to Canadians, to Canadian society and to the debate that we need to be having.”

Others with more extreme, far-right views have latched onto the protest. One online video includes a man expressing hope the rally will turn into the Canadian equivalent of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

Donald Trump Jr. took to social media Tuesday to endorse the Canadian truck convoy’s fight against “tyranny” and to urge Americans to follow suit.

A group called Canada Unity is organizing the movement, which its members refer to as the “freedom convoy.”

A “memorandum of understanding,” posted on the Canada Unity website, says its coalition is opposed to restrictions and mandates related to COVID-19, rules it deems are “unconstitutional, discriminatory and segregating.”

The memorandum’s goal, it says, is to form a committee with the Senate and Governor General that would override all levels of Canadian government to stop the use of vaccine passports, waive fines linked to COVID-19 and reinstate employees who were fired for breaking COVID-19 rules.

If the Senate and Governor General refuse to join such a committee, the group says they should “resign their lawful positions of authority immediately.”

Carissima Mathen, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said seeking to override all levels of government policy would not work, because the body who initially put the policy in place must be the one to reverse it. Alternatively, that policy could be undone by Parliament passing a law.

Mathen, who specializes in the Constitution, added the Governor General has very little involvement with the legal system in Canada.

Alghabra said he is “concerned about the small number of far-right, vocal opposition that is polluting much of our political debate.”

“It’s something that we all need to be aware of, we all need to call out,” he said.

“But at the same time, let’s not lose sight of this, that the vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, the vast majority of truckers are vaccinated. Truckers as you and I are speaking today are delivering goods for Canadians.”

The Canadian Trucking Alliance has estimated that about 15 per cent of truckers — as many as 16,000 — are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. It has strongly denounced any protests on public roadways, highways and bridges and has urged all truckers to get inoculated.

Alghabra said representatives of large grocery chains and other retailers have assured him the truckers’ vaccine mandate has had no measurable impact on their ability to stock their shelves.

“They are offended and hurt by this perception that people are trying to create that they are not able to deliver for their customers.”

Alghabra took particular aim at Conservative MPs, some of whom have offered full-throated support for the truck convoy. Some Conservatives have posted pictures of empty grocery store shelves, at least one of which turned out to be a stock photo of a British store.

“It’s irresponsible for anybody to spread fear … for political gains,” Alghabra said.

A day after refusing to say whether he supported the truck convoy heading to Ottawa, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole appeared in a Facebook live event Tuesday evening to say he understands why many truckers, especially independent ones, are upset.

“You can understand why there’s some frustration and why people are protesting,” O’Toole said.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business also urged the federal government to reverse its vaccination policy for truckers. The organization represents 95,000 small- and medium-sized businesses, including about 500 in the trucking sector.

Earlier, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce had urged the government to give truckers more time to get vaccinated while the Canadian Manufacturing Coalition has also called for the vaccine mandate to be scrapped entirely.

But Alghabra said it would accomplish nothing to postpone or scrap the requirement that truckers entering Canada be fully immunized, since the United States has imposed the same requirement on truckers entering that country.

“It won’t really make a difference. The U.S. has a mandate,” he said.

The best way to end supply chain disruptions is to end the pandemic and the best way to do that is to get vaccinated, which is what the vaccine mandate is all about, he argued.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2022.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor and Erika Ibrahim

Marie Woolf and Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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Crime

Victims’ families boycotting N.S. mass shooting inquiry over questioning of Mounties

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TRURO, N.S. — The relatives of victims of the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting have told their lawyers to boycott the public inquiry investigating the tragedy, after its commissioners decided to prevent cross-examination of key Mountie witnesses.
The law firm representing 14 of 22 families issued a statement saying it was instructed not to attend the hearings on Wednesday and the next three hearings on the schedule. Patterson Law said the families are “disheartened and further traumatized” by the commission’s decision Monday to prevent the law firm’s lawyers from directly questioning Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill and Sgt. Andy O’Brien.

Rehill was the RCMP’s risk manager at its Operational Communications Centre in Truro, N.S., when the rampage that claimed 22 lives over two days began in nearby in Portapique, N.S., on April 18, 2020. When the centre received reports of an active shooter, Rehill assumed command while O’Brien assisted in overseeing the early response.

The federal-provincial commission of inquiry agreed Monday to provide special accommodations for three senior Mounties when they testify about command decisions they made as the tragedy unfolded.

Rehill and O’Brien will face questions from commission lawyers via Zoom calls that will be recorded and broadcast at a later date. Participants and lawyers who wish to observe their testimony must remain off screen with their microphones muted while each Mountie is speaking.

No reasons were given for the special arrangements. The commission has said this information is considered private because it deals with physical or psychological health needs.

Participating lawyers were told to submit questions for Rehill and O’Brien to commission lawyers in advance of the officers’ testimony, which is expected to take place on Monday and Tuesday, beginning with Rehill.

Sandra McCulloch and Rob Pineo, the lawyers for the majority of the families, left their seats at the inquiry unoccupied on Wednesday and held a news conference outside the public library in Truro. Pineo said it’s now unclear whether the family’s representatives will return to the process, adding that he will keep consulting with them.

“This was supposed to be the process that would get the families information and get their questions answered and that is simply not happening,” he said, recalling that they had to hold a public march in Truro and Halifax to pressure the federal and provincial governments to launch a public inquiry instead of the limited review that was originally planned.

Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife, Kristen Beaton, was killed, said he’s now referring to the mass casualty commission as “a review,” adding that he believes the public inquiry has evolved into a “love triangle” between the commission, the RCMP and the government.

Lawyer Tara Miller said her clients have given her instructions not to attend this week and next week.

“In addition to being fundamentally offside, what this decision does is further erode the confidence of family members who are the most affected,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

“These are individuals who put children to bed alone at night. These are the individuals who celebrate Mother’s and Father’s Days with memories.”

Miller said it has been her clients’ position all along that participating lawyers should be allowed to engage in unfettered but appropriate cross-examination of witnesses.

“That is a fundamental tenet of any kind of a litigation proceeding, and that includes public inquiries,” Miller said.

Miller also said cross-examination of Rehill will be central to the inquiry’s purpose.

“This was the individual who had command of the entire first response,” she said. “The decisions that he made and why he made them, those are all questions that are highly relevant.”

Lawyers for the families of victims Gina Goulet, Lillian Campbell, Aaron Tuck, Jolene Oliver and Emily Tuck said in interviews that they will continue to participate next week despite the restrictions on questioning.

Meanwhile, Staff Sgt. Al Carroll — former district commander for Colchester County — is expected to testify Thursday via a live Zoom call. He will be provided with breaks during his appearance, the commission said Tuesday. He could face direct cross-examination.

The National Police Federation and the federal Department of Justice had requested that O’Brien and Rehill be allowed to provide their information by sworn affidavit and that Carroll testify in person with questions asked only by commission counsel.

Commission chairman Michael MacDonald closed the hearing on Wednesday by describing the absence of the families’ lawyers as “unfortunate.” However, he said earlier in the day he didn’t expect that the accommodations would prevent the gathering of “necessary information” from the Mounties.

Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers took the witness stand Wednesday. He was the risk manager who oversaw the RCMP dispatch in Truro during the second day of the rampage on April 19, 2020. On cross-examination, Briers broke down in tears over not having heard, after he came on shift at 7 a.m., that the killer’s replica police car had a distinctive, black push bar on the front.

He said he now realizes that two officers had mentioned the bar at different points in the morning, adding “I didn’t hear either time. I wish I had; this is one of those regrets.” The bar was also visible in a photo of the replica vehicle that was distributed among some senior officers at about 7:27 a.m.

He said he could have issued a broadcast on police radio about the push bar and it might have “made a big difference.”

“I have to live with that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.

— With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Judge decides ‘Freedom Convoy’ organizer Tamara Lich stays out on bail

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OTTAWA — Tamara Lich, a key organizer of the “Freedom Convoy” protest that gridlocked Ottawa for weeks, will remain released on bail while awaiting trial, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Kevin Phillips said he made his decision because she has followed her bail conditions, her surety has supervised her well and she’s already had a “taste of jail,” which he said lowered her risk to reoffend.

The judge said he does not accept that Lich breached her release conditions by agreeing to receive an award, and added Lich can be trusted to respect the conditions of her release.

She was released in March with a long list of conditions, including a ban from all social media and an order not to “support anything related to the Freedom Convoy.”

The terms of Lich’s release were intended to prevent a similar protest from happening in the national capital, the judge said, adding the court does not seek to control people’s political views.

“The courts are not a thought police. We seek only to control conduct to the extent that certain behaviour will violate or likely lead to violation of the law,” he said.

The protest is over and has left Ottawa, he said, adding it would be “practically impossible” to mount a similar protest in the city again.

Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said in an interview Wednesday that he was pleased with the decision.

“She’ll be able to conduct her life in a lot more normal fashion as a result of the judge’s ruling,” said Greenspon.

Moiz Karimjee, a Crown prosecutor, said last week that Lich violated one of her bail conditions by agreeing to accept an award for her leadership during the Ottawa protest, and should be sent back behind bars to wait for her trial.

Greenspon argued last week her bail conditions should be loosened to allow her to come to Ontario and use social media.

He told the court that the social media ban imposed on Lich was unnecessarily broad and has had a huge impact on her life while she’s been out of custody.

However, Phillips said Wednesday the ban on Lich’s access to social media is warranted.

“Social media can be a problematic feedback loop where people get egged on and caught up in group activity they would never perform on their own,” he said.

Social media “undoubtedly contributed to and even drove” Lich’s conduct related to the protest, and her separation from it is necessary to lower her risk of reoffending, said Phillips.

Noting that Lich is in her late 40s, Phillips said she should be able to remember “how to use the social skills she surely built up before the advent of the internet.”

Lich is able to communicate by many other means, including email, phone or meeting in person, he said.

Greenspon said while he would have liked to see the social media ban reversed, “the most important thing was the rejection of the Crown’s efforts to to put her back in jail for agreeing to accept an award.”

The judge did amend her release conditions to allow her to visit Ottawa.

Lich’s motivation for coming to the city cannot be disclosed because it is under a court-ordered publication ban.

Phillips reiterated the high unlikelihood that Lich could organize an event resembling the convoy protest.

While she’s permitted to come to Ottawa, Lich is not allowed to visit the downtown core so as not “to walk around the very neighbourhoods she is alleged to have traumatized,” he said, except to attend court or meet with legal counsel.

Lich and fellow protest organizer Chris Barber are jointly accused of mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation.

The “Freedom Convoy” protest evolved into a weeks-long demonstration that congested the streets of Ottawa in February.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.

———

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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