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A protester carrying an empty fuel container on a broom handle walks on Metcalfe Street past Ontario Provincial Police officers, as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions that has been marked by gridlock and the sound of truck horns continues into its second week in Ottawa, on Feb. 7.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Giuliano Zaccardelli is a retired commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The truism that hindsight is 20/20 strikes a cold blow in the heart of any law enforcement leader. As I watch what should have been a fairly predictable demonstration slowly spiral out of control in Ottawa – a city well used to such events – I feel again that shiver of regret that I’ve myself had cause to experience more than once in my 40-year career in policing.

The Canadian Constitution maximizes the rights of individuals to live a free and peaceful life with a minimal ability of the state to restrict any citizen to say or do what they wish, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others to exercise their own freedoms. Disagreements or desires for change are brought about through well-established legal, political, and peaceful processes. The state does reserve the right to, in extraordinary circumstances, empower certain limited numbers of people – like the police – as a last resort, to use appropriate force to resolve issues when such processes fail.

The challenge for law enforcement is and has always been to balance the sometimes contradictory needs of keeping the peace and enforcing the law. Peace must be kept and respected for the benefit of all; laws must be enforced in appropriate and judicious ways in those instances when they are violated. It’s not always an easy tightrope to traverse.

What has happened over the past week in Ottawa has put this reality into a difficult spotlight. And indeed, the spotlight itself has only exacerbated the tension between keeping things peaceful and the need to respond to increasingly problematic behaviours forcefully.

As a general rule, police agencies will allow a certain amount of disruption to the majority of citizens in order for demonstrators to make their peaceful protest. There is a long-established tradition on the part of law enforcement to negotiate with demonstrators and allow them a certain latitude to make their point, and then to move on. But if and when demonstrators do not respect the law or clearly violate the rights of others, what level of escalated response will be appropriate? What response might even be accepted as necessary?

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Of course, philosophical debate about checks, balances, rights and responsibilities won’t fix the current situation in Ottawa. It is clear now that the leaders of this protest had an agenda of serious disruption. What I expect that even many of the demonstrators didn’t know is how their agenda would move from protest to occupation. It has certainly taken the political sphere, law enforcement and the community by surprise. And it is beyond dismaying.

Unfortunately, the only way out of this now – unless by some miracle a change of approach can be encouraged through dialogue – is going to be through a careful but strong show of force.

The trucks, which have created physical and auditory disorder in Ottawa for a week, must be moved – if not by their owners, then by heavy machinery or, if necessary, police-contracted and protected drivers, no matter how difficult it may be. Any illegal structures – tents, shacks, fire pits, etc. – must be dismantled. And while the decision to make a less central location available to the protesters was a good one (and something I’d have done myself), a time limit must now be put on that usage and firmly enforced.

The balance must now shift from keeping the peace to active enforcement of the law. The decision to do so must be enabled and supported by the political, community, and governmental agencies who under normal circumstances tend to decry such shows of force. The lack of collective hindsight has created a shared problem, and law enforcement cannot be left isolated as a different kind and level of response is required. It’s a response that may not easily be taken, but is ultimately forced, through the actions of those who have taken their rights to express opinions and call for change to unacceptable, offensive, and illegal levels.

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