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A person carries a fuel can after police said they will be targeting the truckers' fuel supply as truckers and their supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa, on Feb. 7.PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

David Pratt is principal at David Pratt & Associates and served as minister of defence in Paul Martin’s government.

Peace, order and good government? Well, not so much if you live in Ottawa.

A protest that started a little more than a week ago has become what police officials and politicians from across the spectrum have called an occupation. It has caused serious disturbances in some residential areas and significant economic loss to local businesses.

Last week, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said that he didn’t believe there was a policing solution. On Monday, he stated that he requires 1,800 additional police and civilian personnel. So how does the occupation end?

Any political compromise is highly improbable. The protesters’ demands – to the extent they are understood – are a non-starter. Practically speaking, if their demands are not met, they are advocating the overthrow of the government.

Although their methods are somewhat different, the intent of the Ottawa protest is perfectly aligned with the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, which sought to subvert the Constitution of the United States by violent means. The Canadian version seeks to hold Ottawa residents and the federal government hostage with large trucks on downtown streets blocking traffic and spewing diesel exhaust. It may be playing out in a festival atmosphere, but make no mistake – this is a blockade.

While Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency on Sunday, it may have little practical effect in ending the occupation. Meanwhile, some city residents have been granted a 10-day ex-parte injunction against truck honking, but the city has not filed its own injunction.

One would hope that a possible court order declaring the protest illegal would encourage many of the protesters to abandon any further occupation. There is also hope that the additional policing resources that have arrived on the scene will bring an end to the current chaos. Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair has proposed a “trilateral table” for intergovernmental cooperation; it needs to work fast and produce tangible results.

For their part, the protesters would be smart to declare victory, say their voices have been heard, and head home. That is the best-case scenario.

In a worst-case scenario, the jacked-up rhetoric, social-media chatter and the protest’s endorsement by some politicians will embolden the hardcore to continue the siege. If that situation prevails, and if the Ottawa Police, RCMP and OPP cannot start the process of removing the protesters and their vehicles very soon, then other measures must be considered.

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There appears to be a marked reluctance by city officials to apply to the Attorney General of Ontario for “aid of the civil power.” No politician likes the idea of uniformed army personnel on the streets of Ottawa. It brings back memories of the invocation of the War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis. But much has changed since October, 1970, including the legislative tools and best practices to deal with large-scale disorder.

The National Defence Act has a clearly defined process for “Aid of the Civil Power.” Section 275 of the Act states explicitly that the Canadian Forces “are liable to be called out for service in aid of the civil power in any case in which a riot or disturbance of the peace, (is) beyond the powers of the civil authorities to suppress…”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated that calling in the Canadian Forces is “not something that anyone should enter into lightly.” And Defence Minister Anita Anand has said that the Canadian Army is not a police force. They are both right. This is serious business. The last time the Forces were used to restore public order was during the Oka Crisis in 1990. Important lessons were learned from Oka by the military which has taught the crisis at DND’s Staff College. The military fully understands its role in “aid of the civil power.” Its very presence in support of police may provide the necessary deterrence to stop the siege.

While the Army is not a police force, neither are they flood, ice-storm and disaster relief personnel, long-term care workers, nor a snow removal force. But when there is no one else to turn to, the military are there as a disciplined, well-trained and professional body to take orders under strict rules of engagement and get a job done.

The Ottawa occupation should be treated as a national emergency. If allowed to continue, it will breed disrespect for the law and further erode faith in the police and elected representatives at all levels of government. It will encourage others who abuse the constitutionally protected right to protest and who weaponize the concept of freedom.

Political leaders at all levels must now step up and use the tools at their disposal to restore public order in the nation’s capital.

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