The convoy commission shows how the sausage gets made
Excellent column. The National Framework’s goal that a protest should be allowed to “happen and end” is a sound objective that will hopefully become the standard police response to protests. What’s interesting to me is that the protest basically “happened” on the first weekend. Then it didn’t end. I think the police assumed, as many of us in the city hoped, that the protestors would have to leave town on Monday to go back to their jobs and homes. When it became clear that that wasn’t happening, the police didn’t seem to know what to do next.
Suppose the protestors had stayed, blocking Wellington Street and some surrounding roads, but had otherwise been relatively well-behaved — demonstrating loudly during the day, but also letting people get on with their lives in relative peace. Residents would have found the street blockade a huge nuisance for getting around downtown, but I think most would have accepted that as the price of life in the national capital. Certainly we’re accustomed to detours and blocked roads the rest of the year.
What turned most local people against the protestors was all the things they were doing that weren’t “protesting.” They abused passersby, invaded stores and a homeless shelter, ran their massive diesel engines, and blasted their horns as long and loudly as they could. There is a difference between protesting government actions and being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole — and continuing to do it after you’ve been asked to stop. They’re both perfectly legal. But only one is intended to achieve a political goal. The other is intended to harass people for your own amusement.
That was around the time we stopped calling them “protestors” and began calling them “occupiers.” But I’m not even sure that that was the right word. An occupation is also a political act. At about the ten-day mark, I feel like for most of those gathered in the red zone, the point of the gathering became to hang out, party, blast their horns, use the hot tub, see themselves on TV, and enjoy — really enjoy — the upset they were causing. It wasn’t a protest or an occupation at that point so much as collective untrammeled self-indulgence. They were having the time of their lives. The fact they were making people angry was the cherry on top.
None of this is what Rouleau’s commission is meant to deal with, and I doubt that his findings will touch on these issues more than slightly. It’s important to determine whether invocation of the Emergencies Act was justified. I think Rouleau will find that it wasn’t, because sustained group assholery in a city with a broken police force does not rise to the level of a liberties-suspending national crisis. But the fact that so many of us cheered the Act’s passage as necessary and overdue should probably make its way into his report, even as a footnote, because I think it’s pretty important.
The biggest problem for the police was that they didn't realize they were supposed to be the bad guys.
In Canada, indigenous people are allowed to protest all they like, except that shutting down key linear infrastructure, like the Windsor bridge and the railways in 2020, needs to be ended in a short period of time. Occupying random streets in centres of government (or small towns) is currently allowed indefinitely.
The rules for the convoy were different. Many people in government believed that, because their message was not approved, they should not have been allowed to stay. The OPS mistakenly thought that the rules for protests should be viewpoint independent. Much of the confusion stemmed from the fact that nobody would admit that enforcement is viewpoint-based.
If leadership had said what they were really thinking, eg "all that stuff about liaison and letting people protest applies to indigenous people and environmentalists, but not vax free blue collars - them we bash" there would have been much less confusion. All the drivel about the protest being illegal because it broke parking bylaws is the same - all major protests break those kinds of minor laws. The people talking about parking bylaws are doing it because they are afraid to say what they really think: this protest was different because of who was protesting and what they were saying.
Wow! Just, wow!
As Hugh O. says, this is an amazing and thoughtful analysis.
I will add that the very minor delay for which you (unnecessarily) apologized earlier today was fully worthwhile as you put together this marvelous piece.
Again and yet again I am thankful that I subscribed when I did.
Thank you, Sir, for your magnificent work.
It appears the focus of the commission has turned into justification of the Emergencies Act in lieu of competence. Sadly, I suggest this will be the decision at the end of the day, the ends justify the means. If so it will bring even greater divisiveness and fracturing of society
The problem was that most of the protesters didn’t have a good grasp of the ostensible reason for the protest, and the demonstrations morphed into a “ down with Trudeau” movement that turned into a circus in our city. Sure, he wasn’t universally loved in Canada, but he did win a federal election a short time before all this. Most of the covid regulations under protest were provincial, not federal, and most imposed by provincial conservative governments. And the regulations were similar to those imposed all over the world, based on the best information at the time. They were not out of left field. The Ottawa police were surly inept by all accounts, but how many people know that Windsor police had to use Detroit tow trucks to clear the bridge in the face of an uncooperative home team. All I know is that the Emergencies Act cleared things up in short order and I didn’t see any abuse of power. Nothing else seemed to be working. I am not a big fan of police getting too cozy with people that give you the finger.
I don't think any of the police forces involved or the politicians were prepared for the logistical and leadership excellence of the convoy. There was a sense, fed by the media, that this was a rabble of uneducated hicks. It wasn't. Chief of Security was an ex-cop, there were lots of ex-CAF people there, and, driving a truck is all about logistics.
Had the pols and cops relied less upon an absurdly uninformed legacy media and actually gone and met with the convoy and its leadership all of this could have been ended without the need for the crowds to "hear our jackboots" or the Musical Ride to trample a First Nations elder.
Invoking the EA should have been a last resort in the face of a clear and present danger, not a response to Andrew Coyne and Rachel Gilmore wetting their pants over Evan Solomon's reports from the "front lines".
A lowertown resident traumatized by 3 am semi-truck horn blaring night after night would not be a fan of the "let the protest happen" approach, methinks.
"Do you agree or disagree that if governments met the protesters, it would encourage more such disruptive tactics? .... It’s very difficult for a lot of people to imagine the rail blockade of 2020 and the convoy of 2022 might be comparable events."
Paul, you struck to the heart of the matter in this paragraph. I have no difficulty whatsoever accepting that the two events were similar in nature, but I would point out that the way each event ENDED was remarkably different, and that difference was largely due to how the Government reacted.
In the case of the railway blockades, Trudeau et al sent a Minister across the country on a mission "to negotiate with ready and willing partners" (their own words), whereas with regards to the Convoy, they reached fairly quickly for the nuclear option and sent in the truncheon wielding brigades and heavy horse units.
Anyone who watched the House proceedings (it was NOT a debate) could see/hear for themselves how eager the Liberals were to enact the EA no matter what.
Award winning article here Mr. Wells. Over the top investigative reporting backed up by the actual voices involved. Kudos! We have a sitting government that is a two-time winner of the slimmest electoral victories of all time. Two thirds of the country did not vote for or support them twice! Sadly, they have not been governing as if those facts even mattered. Instead, we have a petulant silver spooned P.M. who has never known what life is like for an average middle class citizen. Expecting change from those two successive governments amounted to a national deficit that remains unparalleled. Oh, yes there was an international pandemic but that became a catalyst for decision making from the P.M.'s cottage not from the floor of the House. Those decisions among others were so divisive and costly that they were met by the organic assembly of a national Freedom Convoy that held international attention for weeks as a peaceful public protest of the nation's capital. The light shed by your article into the underbelly of municipal policing and governance exposes truths many avoid confronting. Even when they are the ones empowered to oversee such dysfunction, they obfuscate their duty and roles. The Emergencies Act Hearings are only happening because the law requires it. Its outcomes will not quell the voices of those who still protest the tyrannical abuses of our government over our codified Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. They are called hearings because voices from all sides are meant to be heard. It does not necessarily mean that the government of the day is listening instead they are only pretending to hear and only because the law demands it. The outcome may result in another protest. Consider that well Ottawa. But maybe the government will have learned the importance of engaging with dissenting voices by then. We are holding our breath and our tongues as Free Speech is given the hearing it was denied by our Prime Minister. Change is in the wind as another cold Canadian winter approaches. That might be why Ottawa has left the cement barriers on Wellington in place? A national capital is the place where the public should expect to have their voices heard and the place where they must assemble in order to be recognized. This government is blind and tone deaf to such democratic fundamentals. The Opposition party must be the voice of the people when the government no longer wishes to hear from its people.
Paul, I haven't been following the inquiry closely, but from your write-up today it appears that Patricia Ferguson had her head screwed on straight throughout this nasty affair, and that's something we could use more of in many areas. It will be interesting to see how that impression changes as more is revealed. Thanks for the details.
The convoy showed that Canada has a number of serious problems. I propose a referendum moving the seat of power to central Canada, perhaps Manitoba, and leave those poor people in Ottawa in peace.
Lots of smoke and mirrors, some that are not yet disclosed. Within that convoy were several professionals, ex or retired military, ex or retired RCMP, doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers, a scientist and Brian Peckford, to name a few. One RCMP (ex, now retired) had been Trudeau’s personal guard. He quit and joined the convoy. The reticence around going after this convoy, was the unseen, by the public anyway. Those are who you have not heard from, and may not. They would not talk to media. Police knew they were there and who they were. Many police had empathy for the truckers.
Because it is Ottawa, there is no clue just how despised Trudeau is across Canada. As we worry about honking horns, I find it odd that the good citizens of Ottawa cared nothing about the name calling, degrading rhetoric by this “so-called” PM towards millions of Canadian taxpaying citizens.
Further, the media is so biased they alone created further chaos. Their “lies”, “distortions”, etc, created a false narrative from the first day. Much had to be retracted. The one who highlighted this was the OPP Commissioner. Obviously a person with honour who values honesty. It was never reported that those trucks came from every corner of Canada, greeted by thousands along the way. Had that been reported there would be no question where the money came from.
Regardless of the chaos, no part of the Emergency Act criteria was met. That is unless you call absolute incompetence witnessed world wide an “emergency”. Notwithstanding the reputation of Canada greatly deteriorated, not by the truckers who received recognition world wide, but by the PM. That’s the bottom line. The rest is redundant.
As in all things, there are many sides.
A good review. The only place I disagree is to note that those supporting the convoy protesters are mostly reacting to PM Justin Trudeau's openly expressed views that this was an insurrection funded from outside Canada - both opinions being untrue. He is supposed to be PM of Canada, not PM of part of Canada.
While the train blockades are relevant, so too are too other horrific stains on Canadian policing - the G20 protests in Toronto in which the police brutalized peaceful protestors (and Bill Blair was then chief of police), and the 'war in the forests' on Vancouver Island, in which both the police and courts lost enormous social capital enforcing legal but not publicly supported injunctions in favour of McMillan Bloedel. The later was about collateral damage to police and courts enforcing law without social license; the former was about terrible policing, plain and simple. PLTs are in part a response to the disaster of Toronto.
It appears that the root cause of the problem in Ottawa was failure to listen to the intelligence (which anyone who reads knew about) and allowing trucks into the core. Once the truckers had parked, removing them was always going to be very difficult.
Good morning Paul,
Indeed a great column. You astutely and in great depth drew attention to the dysfunction at various levels in both the Ottawa Police Service and their civic politicians.
The role of the Police Liaison Team is interesting. I was reminded when some relatives travelled from Kingston to Ottawa on the February 5th weekend to provide some moral support to the protesters they felt were representing their concerns. Upon their return we heard that police were present, but they were non-combative and friendly. No doubt we can now assume these were some of the PLT officers. The message the protesters took from this approach is that they had carte blanche and hence the hot tub, open fire pits, and honking. Retired OPP Chief Superintendent Carson Pardy expressed it well when he argued that a two prong approach of enforcement and liaison would be most effective, but the Ottawa Police could not get their ducks in a row.
What Acting Deputy Chief Patricia Ferguson understood was that protesters need to feel their concerns have been heard. If only Prime Minister Trudeau had opened communication with the protesters as he did for the protesting Indigenous people who blockaded Canada's railway system in 2020. If only.
Excellent article. There is much more ground to cover but at the outset, hats off to the Emergencies Act for embedding the Inquiry into the fabric of the law.
At some point. I hope this national discussion will address the issue of the use of props in civil protest. We've come a long way from the soapbox in Hyde Park. The necessary concept of limiting disruptions to essential services has been around for a long time. It is time to do the same thing for the use of trucks, front-end loaders and other massive devices brought in by aggrieved groups to make their point. In this case, we saw a very small percentage of truckers who are anti-vaxers able to bring the national capital to its knees, not by the strength of their argument, but by the size of their big iron. This should apply equally to indigenous protests such as Kahnewake Mohawk near Montreal who used heavy equipment to shut down major east-west rail lines in a sympathy for the Kitimat LNG complex .
Excellent perspective and analysis and first rate story-telling. Raises many issues that the Judge will likely not be able to deal with by late Feb.