Measured approach brought peaceful end to camp
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To denounce police for taking so long to dismantle an encampment on the legislative grounds — a criticism that has abounded in recent weeks — is to overlook the effectiveness of a shift toward a non-violent approach to policing protests.
The recipe for the strategy follows these steps: monitor the situation; minimize use of force unless people are in danger of getting hurt; negotiate; wait patiently; repeat steps as needed.
It’s the framework developed in 2019 by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and adopted by forces across the country in response to a series of high-profile clashes between protesters and police that ended tragically, including the 1990 Oka crisis when the deployment of 4,000 troops led to many violent clashes, and the killing of an Indigenous protester by police at Ipperwash Provincial Park in Ontario.
The disadvantage of the monitor-and-negotiate approach is that it’s neither fast nor forceful enough to appease the critics who feel illegal acts should be halted and punished promptly to deter other offenders who are tempted to defy the law-and-order structure of the community.
To be sure, Winnipeg police could have shut down the two encampments immediately when the eviction notices became effective on Aug. 24 and were ignored. If the police chief so ordered, a phalanx of armed officers could have easily removed the encampment residents, many of whom were sitting around fires in front of teepees.
Instead of moving in with a riot-squad approach, however, police didn’t enforce the eviction orders for 39 days and continued to monitor and negotiate.
Finally, last week, the waiting ended when protesters attempted to erect a third teepee on the grounds and ongoing conversations with police broke down. There were reports of weapons in one of the camps and a growing number of protesters bearing signs and flags related to unaffiliated issues, ranging from COVID-19 restrictions to conflict in the Middle East.
Sixty police and conservation officers dismantled one of the encampments, maintaining a measured approach even when they were heckled by protesters who seemed to be reprising the anger of the “freedom convoy” of last winter.
“What we saw was an erosion of co-operation and an increase in both rhetoric and aggression, and a complete unwillingness to be reasonable around restricting expansion of the camp,” said Dave Dalal, superintendent of uniform operations for the Winnipeg Police Service.
A total of 12 people were arrested and face charges that include obstructing peace officers and occupying a structure on the legislature grounds. The arrests were conducted without violence. Weapons that were seized included three axes, a hammer, a hatchet, body armour, a three-foot club, a spear and a machete.
Action is not currently planned against an eastern camp, which was set up in 2021 to maintain a sacred fire until all potential unmarked graves are identified at former residential schools across Canada.
As another testament to the discretion employed by police, the crackdown where protesters were arrested was confined to the camp on the north lawn. Mr. Dalal said enforcement action is not currently planned against an eastern camp, which was set up in 2021 to maintain a sacred fire until all potential unmarked graves are identified at former residential schools across Canada.
Police in Manitoba are not accustomed to public praise. Allegations in recent years of unfair police treatment of Indigenous people and people of colour have resulted in public protests and even calls to defund the police.
In their enforcement of the eviction orders at the encampments on the legislative grounds, however, police found the right balance between cultural sensitivity and moving in when hostility grew and violence became possible. Negotiating this tension was a difficult task, and police handled it as well as could be hoped.