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'Siege mentality': OPP warned 'Freedom Convoy' protesters weren't leaving Ottawa

OTTAWA — The same day the federal Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act, the Ontario Provincial Police warned in an internal intelligence report that those protesting in Ottawa were not going to leave voluntarily. The Feb.
Former OPP Chief Supt. Carson Pardy appears at the Public Order Emergency Commission, in Ottawa, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The same day the federal Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act, the Ontario Provincial Police warned in an internal intelligence report that those protesting in Ottawa were not going to leave voluntarily.

The Feb. 14 report, released through the Public Order Emergency Commission on Wednesday, showed the provincial police based their assessment on how long the blockades around Parliament Hill had dragged on, as well as the scope of the protest and "nature of the conflict."

Police said the biggest barrier to having demonstrators leave was their stated objective, which was to see all COVID-19 mandates removed "and or dissolution of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government."

Although the protest was often billed as an uprising of truckers who travelled to Ottawa to protest a COVID-19 mandate for those crossing the Canada-U.S. border, many were there to demand Trudeau leave office, with some suggesting they could form a coalition with the Governor General. 

Besides their cause, police said another challenge in getting protesters to leave was the size of the protest itself. It spanned many blocks and included hundreds of trucks and heavy equipment.

"There is no clear pathway toward reaching a satisfactory resolution that would see the protest group leave voluntarily," the report says.

It also referred to another intelligence report that found that protesters' attitudes toward police in Ottawa were growing more confrontational. 

"Blockade organizers view the standoff with the government as a zero-sum game: they are convinced that if the government has not reached out to them to negotiate, it is because a massive police deployment against them is imminent," it said. 

"This perception is feeding a siege mentality in which they are prepared to defend themselves."

A senior Ottawa police officer, however, told the public inquiry on Wednesday that a proposed deal to move trucks out of residential neighbourhoods during the weeks-long "Freedom Convoy" could have ultimately brought it to an end — without using the Emergencies Act.

In the days before the act was invoked, 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 inquiry on Wednesday that 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.

The Feb. 14 intelligence report from the OPP said officers on the ground observed crowds chanting "we are not going anywhere," but saw "a significant decrease" in the number of trucks on surrounding streets, as they were being relocated to Wellington Street.

Drummond 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 the federal government did not need to compel tow truck drivers to remove vehicles refusing to leave downtown.

He said that is 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, OPP 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. Theofficer 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.

Late Wednesday, inquiry commissioner Justice Paul Rouleau ruled that the federal government could present both evidence and witnesses from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre behind closed doors for national security reasons.

In his ruling, Rouleau also said that after he has heard the evidence, he will decide whether some or all of it should remain confidential.

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

Stephanie Taylor and David Fraser, The Canadian Press