By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa
The public inquiry examining the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to clear “Freedom Convoy” protesters from Ottawa streets and several border crossings in February is tasked with answering a central question: Was the decision to invoke emergency powers necessary and justified?
As the commission stretches into its second week of public hearings with testimony from police and city officials, here is how some witnesses have answered that question:
Ottawa Police Service
Supt. Robert Bernier, who oversaw a command centre, said Ottawa police developed a plan by mid-February using existing laws to remove protesters. That plan involved the Ontario Provincial Police securing 34 tow trucks and drivers, promised anonymity, to remove vehicles.
But under cross-examination, a lawyer for the federal government asked Bernier if he was aware that plan fell apart and that drivers were unwilling to get involved. The inquiry was shown a Feb. 17 letter from the OPP warning tow truck drivers they could be compelled to participate in the effort to clear out the area around Parliament Hill.
Asked whether he agreed 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 to help.
Bernier said he agrees with Ottawa’s interim police chief, Steve Bell, that the legislation helped create an exclusion zone, but police had plans to create one of their own. Bell also said regardless of the legislation triggered on Feb. 14, police had a plan to clear protesters.
Acting deputy chief Trish Ferguson said the legislation “greased the wheels” on the existing police plan.
Ontario Provincial Police
“The Emergencies Act was not required to formulate an effective police response to this situation,” the force said in a report submitted to the Public Order Emergency Commission.
The provincial force helped clear blockades in Ottawa and Windsor, Ont. The report says that while the emergency powers “provided supplementary tools for police” they believed existing laws gave police tools to deal with “Freedom Convoy” protests.
Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique said the Emergencies Act “was extremely helpful” to indemnifying tow truck drivers, but he also felt the police hadn’t exhausted all existing powers by Feb. 14.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki emailed Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office on Feb. 14, to say “we have not yet exhausted all available tools.” The Liberal government invoked the legislation hours later.
Lucki said in the email, released through the public inquiry, that she believed charges could be laid under existing Criminal Code offences.
But in her testimony before the parliamentary committee that is also studying the decision to invoke the act, Lucki said there were times that the RCMP would have used the powers under the act had it been invoked earlier.
“In RCMP jurisdiction, we successfully used a measured approach and existing legislation to resolve border blockades,” Lucki told the committee on May 10. She added that the powers granted by the Emergencies Act did prove useful in dislodging the protesters who had become entrenched in Ottawa’s streets for weeks.
Lucki is scheduled to testify at the inquiry in the coming weeks.
Former Ottawa mayor Jim Watson
The former mayor voted against a city council motion asking for the Emergencies Act to be used in February.
But he testified to the commission that he felt it was necessary, saying he feared protests would have dragged on for weeks longer without the emergency powers.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford
Ford is fighting a summons to appear as a witness at the inquiry and declined requests to be interviewed by commission lawyers. However, while speaking to reporters at a recent event, he said Ontario stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2022.
Convoy organizer says plans to stage a 2023 protest in Winnipeg are off
Freedom Convoy 2.0 appears to be a bust.
Canada Unity, one of the anti-government protest groups behind the protests that headlined much of last year, is calling off its plans to restage the event this February.
Canada Unity founder James Bauder initially planned to bring a four-day blockade to Ottawa but then said it would be moved to Winnipeg.
Bauder now says in a Facebook post it’s not going to happen at all, citing security breaches and personal character attacks on him.
As the 2022 protest in Ottawa was forced to end last February Bauder was among dozens of people arrested and charged with mischief and various counts of disobeying police and court orders.
The first iteration of the Freedom Convoy blockaded downtown Ottawa for three weeks and shut down at least four border crossings, resulting in the federal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 2, 2023.
Ottawa police cut email access over fears info would leak during ‘Freedom Convoy’
By David Fraser in Ottawa
Ottawa police were so concerned about leaks from “Freedom Convoy” sympathizers in their ranks that they proactively shut off the email accounts of members on leave, but now the force has little to say about how real those fears turned out to be.
The Public Order Emergency Commission investigating the federal Liberal government’s use of the Emergencies Act learned there were several times when senior officers were concerned protesters who gridlocked downtown Ottawa for several weeks last winter were getting leaks.
A Feb. 28 email from Ottawa police Insp. Michel Marin to colleagues said that police members were observed participating in the protests downtown, and members who were away from work “sympathetic to the anti-mandate cause” still had access to their professional emails.
The email, submitted to the inquiry, said that “due to the state of emergency and believing this may have compromised (Ottawa Police Service) operations leading to the expulsion of the protesters,” email and internal notification system access was restricted for members on leave.
Marin wrote the email after demonstrators had been cleared from the streets. He was seeking guidance on whether it was time to revisit the decision to remove email access, but it remains unclear whether it was restored.
Acting Ottawa police Supt. Robert Drummond told the inquiry there was concern current and former law enforcement officers were involved in the protest and that “as a precaution,” access to corporate accounts was cut off for one member of the police force.
“There (were) concerns about information flowing out of the organization,” he testified Oct. 26.
Deputy Ottawa police chief Steve Bell, who was acting police chief at the time, testified that concerns over potential leaks were “regularly” investigated, but nothing was found.
“As a result of those investigations, we didn’t find any circumstances where there was a compromise of information or actions because information was shared from inside our organization (with) the protesters.”
The Ottawa police, even now, have not said how many investigations were completed, or remain ongoing, into allegations of potential leaks.
In a statement, the Ottawa police referred only to “several internal investigations and discipline related to officers’ conduct” that have already taken place, noting they were “related to donations made in support of the convoy.”
Only one decision had been made public. A police officer pleaded guilty last month to discreditable conduct for having donated to the “Freedom Convoy” after then-chief Peter Sloly had deemed the protest an illegal occupation. She was docked 40 hours of pay.
No other disciplinary hearings for officers related to the protests appear to be scheduled.
The head of the Ontario Provincial Police’s provincial operations intelligence bureau, Supt. Pat Morris, also warned senior officers in a Feb. 10 email chain about operational leaks, although it was unclear which police force.
In one email submitted to the inquiry, he linked to a Facebook comment from an unidentified person saying a “source from a city worker and front-line worker” had warned about something planned for the next day.
Morris described it in the email as “evidence,” or at least intelligence, of an “operational leak” and “every example that I have been provided has been accurate.”
The OPP did not respond to requests about what it is doing, or has done, to investigate leaks.
The inquiry learned that Sloly, who resigned as Ottawa’s police chief on Feb. 15, the day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, was aware of Morris’s concerns.
On Feb. 14, Sloly’s morning briefing notes show Morris indicated to him “we might have significant issues with police members being involved in the demos.”
The former chief told the inquiry every complaint was assigned for review by the professional standards unit, and any that suggested misconduct were assigned for proper investigation. He said he suspended one officer during the protests, but he did not know the status of that case.
Protest organizers who appeared before the inquiry also spoke of police co-operation.
Danny Bulford, a “Freedom Convoy” spokesman and security liaison, said he did not have any active duty officers leaking him any sensitive information, but that he did get help from police.
“There was officers that were on leave for various reasons, whether it be the mandates or their own personal reasons — I didn’t ask; it wasn’t my business — that were also helping with some of the security tasks that I was co-ordinating,” he testified.
Jeremy MacKenzie, founder of the far-right online “Diagolon” group, told the commission he was leaked information from law enforcement on several occasions during the protests.
MacKenzie told the commission that a self-described RCMP officer who was a fan of his podcast and online streaming activities warned of riot police being activated. Some of those details were also included in the OPP’s Feb. 8 intelligence report, submitted to the inquiry.
MacKenzie said the person he believed to be a Mountie also leaked photos of a group text message featuring RCMP members joking about protest enforcement efforts.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki was not asked about police leaks during her Nov. 15 appearance at the inquiry, and she told reporters there were no code of conduct findings or charges laid.
A Feb. 10 RCMP intelligence document shared with the commission also warned the potential for “serious insider threats” existed.
“Those who have not lost their jobs but are sympathetic to the movement and their former colleagues may be in a position to share law enforcement or military information to the convoy protests,” the report says.
The RCMP did not answer specific questions about instances of leaks during the convoy or ongoing investigations, saying in a statement its officials “stand by their testimony and have no additional comment.”
“Generally, only in the event that an investigation results in the laying of criminal charges, would the RCMP confirm its investigation, the nature of any charges laid and the identity of the individual(s) involved,” the RCMP statement said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2022.
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