OTTAWA — The Ottawa Police Service has no detailed plan for how it would use the 1,600 reinforcements it is seeking and exactly how Chief Peter Sloly intends to end the protest paralyzing downtown Ottawa, the Star has learned.
That’s why the force has not yet received the massive number of extra officers, on top of “hundreds” already on the ground from other outside forces, sources say.
It’s prompted the federal government to criticize Ottawa’s handling of the crisis as “inexplicable,” and suggest it may invoke emergency federal authorities to restore public order or aid civil authorities.
With no policing end in sight to the standoff in Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson said the city sought a concession from the so-called “Freedom Convoy” organizers to remove trucks from residential areas and to confine their protest to Parliament Hill, in exchange for a meeting with him.
A letter signed by convoy “president” Tamara Lich released by Watson said, “We have made a plan to consolidate our protest efforts around Parliament Hill, and we will be working hard over the next 24 hours to get buy in from the truckers.”
But on Sunday night, Lich tweeted that she had made no such agreement.
“No ‘deal’ has been made. End the mandates, end the passports. That is why we are here,” she wrote.
Even if the organizers eventually persuade drivers to leave side streets, the occupation of Wellington Street seems set to continue for some time with Ottawa police saying it is outnumbered and overwhelmed.
Multiple policing and security sources whom the Star agreed not to identify because they are not authorized to speak about operations used the same explanation: “There is no plan.”
In a statement Saturday, Ottawa police said officers faced “aggressive behaviour” by protesters Friday night.
“We have a plan to end this unlawful occupation and await the necessary reinforcements to do so,” said the news release.
“When you say you need more police officers, what’s the plan for the bodies you have now?” said one senior source, who said there are already a lot of police officers on the ground in Ottawa, including from OPP, RCMP and other municipal forces, including Durham, London and others.
“None of us could have imagined something like this and for police to just stand down,” said the insider.
Another source said police chiefs have good reason to be reluctant to put their people under the command of Ottawa police brass. “It’s a mess.”
In an interview with the Star Sunday, Bill Blair, federal minister of emergency management and preparedness and Toronto’s former police chief, said for the first time that the federal government is prepared to use the federal emergencies act or other authorities in the national defence act, if necessary.
“The situation clearly is not yet under control, and enforcement needs to take place,” he said. “Police have an important job to do. And our expectation is that they’ll do it.”
The White House, meanwhile, was burning up the phone lines to Canadian government officials who, the Americans said, assured the Biden Administration that swift action is being taken.
“Canadian authorities intend to reopen the Ambassador Bridge today after completing necessary safety checks,” said Biden’s Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall.
In a statement, the White House said she spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser Jody Thomas late Saturday and expressed “appreciation for the decisive law enforcement efforts that are underway,” and discussed “the imperative of taking swift, strong action and deterring future blockades.”
Copycat protests have sprung up at the Coutts, Alta. crossing into Montana, the Emerson, Man. border point with North Dakota; Fort Erie across from Buffalo, and Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spoke with their Canadian counterparts on Sunday and were told that “most protesters have been cleared from the Ambassador Bridge, barriers are being removed and the corridor is being secured.”
Trudeau’s government welcomed Ontario’s declaration of a 14-day state of emergency which makes it an offence to block access to and from critical infrastructure, defined as 400-series highways, airports, hospitals, international and interprovincial bridges and crossings, locations where COVID-19 vaccines are administered and other critical utilities.
It does not designate legislatures like Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill as “critical.”
Blair said nevertheless the Ontario measures provide extra tools for Ottawa police to act, otherwise the federal government may invoke its powers.
“If the circumstances exceed the capacity of the province’s emergency powers, we’re prepared to use federal authorities to fill those gaps.”
Blair said he was “encouraged” that the Ottawa Police announced late Saturday an “integrated command group” — a step he said means that the OPP, the RCMP and the Ottawa Police Service “are now sharing command of the situation and that will also help to hopefully bring additional resources to bear.”
Blair said RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki briefed him Sunday that “with the formation of this integrated incident response command group that … they believe they have a plan to move forward.”
The OPP, in a statement to the Star, said that command of the operations is not shared; that the Ottawa police service “still leads the response and the OPP is providing support to the OPS.”
The provincial police force would not release numbers of how many officers it has supplied to Ottawa, directing all “operational” questions to the municipal force.
But the OPP spokesman Bill Dickson reacted to a video that widely circulated on social media showing a uniformed OPP officer telling a trucker he’d stopped on the highway en route to Ottawa, “I support you guys.”
The sympathetic OPP cop said OPP officers in Ottawa are “not going to stop jerry cans” — that they’d be “there to keep the peace.”
Dickson said the encounter occurred Saturday and the OPP Professional Standards Unit has launched an internal conduct investigation.
He said it “has raised concerns about professionalism and depicts opinions that are not in line with the OPP’s values. We recognize that the views expressed by the member have caused public upset.”
“While the OPP supports the right of people to conduct lawful demonstrations, it does not condone the current illegal activity or behaviour. Under the recent province-wide state of emergency, those who defy the law will be held accountable.
“Our officers are expected to complete their professional obligations while maintaining the highest standard of conduct, integrity and ethical behaviour at all times.”
At the same time, the Canadian Forces said Sunday night, three of its members are under investigation for allegations they actively participated “in some form or another, supporting the ongoing protests in Ottawa,” according to special forces commander, Major-General Steve Boivin, in a statement issued Sunday night.
The Ottawa Citizen reported two were serving members of Joint Task Force 2, the elite counterterrorism unit, and one was a former member now assigned to the procurement section at National Defence.
Boivin said two of the three were already in the process of being released from the forces, but the allegations would be investigated, and the third, not a special forces team member, would be dealt with by his current boss.
“If the allegations are accurate, this is wrong and it goes against CAF values and ethics,” said Boivin.
“The Canadian Special Operations Forces Command does not condone its members supporting and/or actively taking part in causes that jeopardize the apolitical imperative associated with their functions. I expect our members to act in ways that demonstrate Canadian Armed Forces values and ethics, and to uphold them both on and off duty.”
A few former military and former police officers have trumpeted their contribution to the convoy, but it is unclear just how many are involved in the group.
The Ottawa police say the job of ending the “illegal occupation” is challenging because city tow truck companies faced threats and refuse to aid the police to tow vehicles.
Deputy chief Steve Bell said it’s further complicated by the fact that children are living in about 100 of the more than 400 trucks it said are parked downtown.
Blair said Ottawa’s request for extra police officers “initiated the discussion as to what you’re going to do with them.”
He said he does not know the details of any “operational” plan, nor should he.
“Responsibility for policing in a city belongs to the municipal police service. But clearly this situation has exceeded their capacity to manage it, and so help was sent.
“But we need to do more. What has been done is not adequate, nor effective.
“It should never have been allowed to get to establish itself, that would have been my expectation,” said Blair.
Blair said there are “very serious questions raised about the effectiveness of the police response. And there are lessons to be learned and applied here. And I will tell you, those reflections have already begun.”
There was no immediate response from Ottawa police to a request for comment for this story.
Ottawa police were challenged by residents to do more, with several counterprotests springing up on Sunday around the city, following a large demonstration Saturday calling for an end to the Ottawa occupation, now in its 17th day.
Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and associate professor at Carleton University, said “it’s not clear that the Ottawa police had a good understanding of some of the groups that were either organizing this protest, or the extremist groups that were planning to join in on it.”
But Carvin pointed to the Windsor police’s clearing of blockades at the international bridge, which showed protesters complied when threatened with arrest, fines, or losing their licence or ability to cross into the United States.
In Ottawa, she said, “I think, increasingly, as this goes on, you’re attracting an extremist hardcore of individuals who may put up a problem. But at the end of the day, honestly, if you just start imposing costs, licenses and suspensions and stuff like that (it would) get the oxygen out of this thing.”
In an interview earlier this week, Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa police union, said for the cop on the street, there is “always frustration” around awaiting orders, and about the hit to the reputation and public trust that they are taking.
“I do believe the public trust has shaken here, but in a moment of crisis, that the focus needs to be on the sustainability and the logistics and the safety to the public.”
Ottawa officers “are conducting themselves now as they have at every other demonstration — they await … the planning, the orders that come from the executive.”
Artur Wilczynski, an assistant deputy minister for diversity and inclusion at Canada’s top-secret signals intelligence agency, tweeted Sunday a damning criticism of the Ottawa police.
“The whole city is furious at being abandoned by the people who are supposed to protect us. They have completely abandoned the rule of law. @OttawaPolice have lost credibility. #OttawaPoliceFailed,” he posted.
The Communications Security Establishment distanced itself from Wilczynski’s comment.
Spokesman Evan Koronewski in an email to the Star said his social media post “reflects Mr. Wilczynski’s personal opinion, and is not made on behalf of the Communications Security Establishment.”
“While it would be inappropriate for CSE to comment on matters outside of our mandate, we can say that CSE acknowledges the difficult situation facing all levels of our law enforcement partners while working to bring an end to the illegal blockade across Ottawa.”
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