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Have you summoned a Ford lately?
Yearning for a Premier, the convoy commission fills time with reruns
It’s cops all the way down this week at the Public Order Emergency Commission over on Wellington St. I spent the morning listening to the testimony of Steve Bell, the Ottawa Police Service’s interim chief.
To give you a sense of how unsettled things have been at the OPS, it’s worth recalling that Bell replaced Matt Torigian, who resigned after two days as the Ottawa Police Service Board’s designated interim successor to Peter Sloly, who resigned in the middle of February’s truck convoy. Trying to install Torigian led Ottawa council, led by outgoing mayor Jim Watson, to remove councillor Diane Deans as head of the Police Services Board. That lousy week probably contributed to the end of Deans’ political career. Ottawans elected Watson’s successor on Monday. The Police Services Board designated Bell’s successor on Friday. So everything’s going just as smooth as gravel in a coffee grinder here in the nation’s capital.
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Commissioner Paul Rouleau will spend this entire week listening to testimony from more police officers: three more from the OPS, two from the Ontario Provincial Police, all as a prelude to Peter Sloly’s eagerly-awaited testimony, which is now expected on Friday.
That’s a lot of cops. I suspect that when every one of them is done talking, it still won’t be clear how communications among the RCMP, OPP and OPS collapsed — and more specifically, between the Ottawa police and the other forces. But that communications collapsed is already beyond dispute.
Beginning to fix the infighting that hobbled the police force will surely be a high priority for Eric Stubbs, the new OPS chief, and the city’s new mayor, Mark Sutcliffe. Of Bell’s testimony, little need be said because most of it matches earlier testimony from his OPS colleagues and from political staff at City Hall.
Ottawa knew a very large demonstration was heading their way. In the main, they thought the protesters had no violent intent, but were on edge because any large crowd in an emotional environment can bring nasty surprises, or conceal isolated troublemakers.
They thought the protesters would go home after the first weekend, give or take a day. Everything changed when that didn’t happen. That’s the elevator pitch for this whole story.
Bell’s main innovation was his strong belief that the convoy’s decision to stay past a few days changed its nature. In Ottawa, somebody protests all the time. Ottawa police are notably — I would say admirably — blasé about this, recognizing it’s the freight a democracy pays. “We live in Ottawa,” Bell said. “We’re at the seat of Parliament. Protesting — lawful protesting — is something that the community accepts.”
But protests leave. “People creating an occupation that traumatizes our community is something that we had never seen,” Bell said. “We need to make sure that we bring the community impact to the front in everything we do.” In the convoy’s first days, “We didn’t focus on the harm that was being done” to Ottawans.
As soon as the notion of longer-term harm sunk in, police forces elsewhere began denying their central neighbourhoods to rolling protests — in Quebec City, in Toronto — and the next time Ottawa got a do-over, with the Rolling Thunder convoy in April, the OPS did the same. Counsel commission Frank Au asked Bell whether the police service had different advance intel then than with February’s convoy. “No,” Bell said. “We had experience.”
Another thing we need to talk about, stemming from Bell’s evidence, is the role the strategic advisory firm Navigator and the market research firm Advanced Symbolics Inc (ASI) played in advising Sloly. Witnesses are interviewed by commission counsel before taking the stand; accounts of these pre-interviews are posted with the rest of the evidence. And Steve Bell became the second senior OPS officer, after Trish Ferguson, to complain about Navigator and ASI.
Ferguson’s notes from a Jan. 27 call with senior OPS command include this passage: “If you can predict it, we can start to prevent it. Crisis & Comms management — issues management. Navigator + ASI pre-positioned. ”
Then there’s this: “Acting Deputy Chief Ferguson attended meetings with Navigator and ASI early in the Freedom Convoy but stopped attending them as the convoy progressed. She saw little value in Navigator and ASI’s work. She noted that they inflamed protestors by putting out messaging that OPS was working with CAS to apprehend children at protest sites.”
Ferguson’s notes from the morning of Feb. 14 state: “In the last several weeks, there have been daily Navigator prep meetings for command. I have begun to decline them because I believe it has begun to drive our operations and influence the Chief ’s decision around things like enforcement — which we know has been putting our officers @ risk for safety reasons.” I should note that none of Ferguson’s claims has been tested in court.
From Steve Bell’s pre-interview: “Interim Chief Bell recalled a February 11 12:10 p.m. meeting that he, Chief Sloly, and Acting Deputy Chief Ferguson participated in with Navigator. During the meeting, Chief Sloly engaged with Navigator in open discussions that generated ideas about how to pursue police operations, including how police were managing the operation and how to communicate police operations to the public. Interim Chief Bell understood that Chief Sloly found it to be appropriate to involve Navigator in these discussions.
“Interim Chief Bell also recalled that on February 12, Navigator principal [Jaime] Watt entered his office and began discussing police operations with him. He noted that Mr. Watt was working out of the OPS building at 474 Elgin St. that day. Mr. Watt told Interim Chief Bell that it was a problem that OPS had not actively responded to a group of people who removed fencing surrounding the National War Memorial on the afternoon of February 12, and that OPS should take a more active approach. Interim Chief Bell did not receive Mr. Watt’s request well because he viewed Mr. Watt’s involvement in operational discussions as inappropriate.”
Finally, from Sloly’s pre-interview, which reporters have already seen and which, you won’t be surprised to learn, is largely a rebuttal to Ferguson’s and Bell’s testimony. Sloly says Navigator and ASI were already working for the OPS “in connection with OPS’s change management projects” before the convoy. “Neither Navigator nor ASI were engaged to perform Freedom Convoy - related tasks before the Freedom Convoy arrived in Ottawa. Chief Sloly did not use either of them to attempt to predict or prevent protestor behaviour, as this was not part of the contracts for either ASI or Navigator. He also did not use Navigator or ASI to model negotiations, as this was not in their contract and would be inappropriate. To his knowledge, operational decisions were not based on Navigator or ASI assessments. ASI information was shared with the command team to provide situational awareness. If Acting Deputy Chief Ferguson had concerns about OPS’s use of Navigator or ASI, he would have expected her to inform him of those concerns.”
After Sloly resigned and Bell took over, Bell thanked the consultants and ended their work with OPS. This is all so far from the commission’s primary mandate that it’s unsurprising that in their oral testimony, neither Ferguson nor Bell had to take many questions about Sloly’s outside comms advice. But it’s a reminder of the extent to which public organizations have learned to lean on private contractors to perform what used to be core functions.
And the whole episode leaves one question: Why do Trish Ferguson’s notes from
Sept. [UPDATE that should be January, of course - pw] 27, when according to every Ottawa cop’s testimony none of them was expecting an extended crisis, include a mention of Navigator and ASI? Why did Sloly have crisis communications ready when everyone says he wasn’t expecting a crisis?
Red rover, red rover
Finally, when Doug Ford says “I have not been asked” to do something, it means he has been asked.
We will all soon find out whether parliamentary privilege, which is a thing in the provinces as much as in Ottawa, can withstand the language of S.4 of the Inquiries Act (“any witnesses”). But Rouleau’s interest in hearing Ford is obviously legitimate.
I’m on the record, here and on TV, believing the Ontario Premier’s testimony is a useful input into this inquiry. Probably more useful than a second week of police witnesses, or the mayors of Windsor and Coutts, or the Ottawa woman who sought an injunction to stop the community harm Steve Bell described. The Emergencies Act requires federal consultation with provinces, after all, although it conspicuously doesn’t require provincial consent. Ford frustrated Ottawa mayor Jim Watson’s office by refusing to show up, or to let his ministers show up, for multi-level meetings designed to coordinate a complex response to a huge and complex problem. Then he endorsed Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act. That’s a story worth hearing.
It’s also probably why Ford doesn’t want to tell it. The conservative universe in Canada is noticeably short of people who think Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act was a good thing. Prominent Conservatives who disagree with Ford include a Mr. P. Poilievre, of Ottawa. There’s nothing to be gained from airing this disagreement at length, in front of (shudder) reporters. Unless the goal is a better understanding of government actions.
The last time Ford’s policing decisions got close scrutiny, after all, was when his friend Ron Taverner became commissioner of the OPP. The Ontario integrity commissioner got called in on that one, and eventually concluded Ford had not breached any regulations in the hiring. The whole process seems to have been unpleasant, however. Governments don’t like their decisions to receive scrutiny. Which is precisely why they should receive scrutiny.