Irresponsible protest leaders to blame for safety threat, Ottawa’s action Authorities caught unprepared, but occupation far from peaceful
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If government agencies and police forces were better prepared to respond to protests that paralyzed downtown Ottawa in February 2022, the use of the controversial Emergencies Act could likely have been avoided. That was one of the many findings of Justice Paul Rouleau, the commissioner of the inquiry that examined the use of the federal act last winter.
The use of such extraordinary measures could also have been avoided if the people protesting government’s COVID-19 public-health orders did so peacefully, instead of holding a community hostage.
“Had various police forces and levels of government prepared for and anticipated events of this type and acted differently in response to the situation, the emergency that Canada ultimately faced could likely have been avoided,” wrote Rouleau in a lengthy report released Friday.
He’s right, of course. Rouleau wrote in great detail how police agencies were ill-prepared for the size and complexity of the so-called Freedom Convoy. The Ottawa Police Service, in particular, was understaffed and senior officials misread the magnitude of the demonstration, Rouleau found. Along with all levels of government, they collectively dropped the ball.
But what Canadians should keep in mind is cops and government officials are not the ones to blame here. Protest organizers, many of whom encouraged lawlessness and fuelled chaos, were responsible for the invocation of the act, not government. While there may have been more police and public officials could have done to avoid using the act, it was the illegal activity and threats of violence by protesters that ultimately forced government’s hand.
Not all protesters in Ottawa were engaged in lawlessness, Rouleau pointed out. In fact, most were law-abiding citizens who felt they had a genuine grievance against government. Canadians have a right to peaceful assembly, he wrote.
Trouble is, much of the Ottawa protest was not peaceful. It became increasingly dangerous. There were elements of extremism and growing risks of violence and security threats government could not ignore. Rouleau rejected arguments that this was a peaceful demonstration. It became an occupation.
“The impact of the occupation on the residents of Ottawa was striking,” he wrote.
“Many experienced negative effects on their physical and psychological health and were legitimately concerned for their personal safety. Street obstructions impeded access to critical public and emergency services. There were multiple reports of harassment, intimidation, and assaultive behaviour, to which law enforcement was often unable to respond. The very fact that law enforcement was overwhelmed and unable to enforce basic laws created a safety risk.”
“Police reported that the tone of the protests was becoming increasingly hostile, as were some protesters.”–Justice Paul Rouleau
That was not a peaceful demonstration by any definition. Neither was this:
“On several occasions, police attempting to enforce the law were swarmed,” wrote Rouleau. “Tow truck drivers who tried to assist were physically threatened. Police reported that the tone of the protests was becoming increasingly hostile, as were some protesters.”
What Rouleau painstakingly laid out in his report is that this was a complex situation with no easy answers. Police and government should have been better prepared and it’s possible the use of the Emergencies Act could have been avoided, he wrote.
However, at the end of the day, with all the information and legal advice in front of government, the decision to invoke the act was reasonable and met the threshold under the legislation, he found.
Cabinet was “reasonably concerned that the situation it was facing was worsening and at risk of becoming dangerous and unmanageable.”
Given its responsibility to protect Canadians and to preserve public safety, it was obviously the right call.
Putting government’s use of the Emergencies Act under the microscope was not only necessary to preserve freedom and democracy, it was a requirement under the act. Government must face intense scrutiny when using such extraordinary powers. It has, through this commission.
But it’s also important to remember none of this would have been necessary if those protesting government policy did so peacefully and without terrorizing the people around them. That should be the biggest takeaway from this entire episode.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.