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Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and adjunct professor of disaster and emergency management at York University.

At an emergency meeting of the Ottawa Police Services Board on Saturday, Chief Peter Sloly lamented that no police force in the country could have been prepared for the protest currently under way in the nation’s capital.

Said Chief Sloly: “A police service under the Police Services Act was never created, the legislation supporting the Police Services Act was never contemplated, the oath of office that I and my officers swore was never intended to deal with a city under siege, a threat to our democracy, a nationwide insurrection driven by madness.”

The message that the Ottawa police service was not only not prepared, but that no police service could possibly have been – and that there was “no concrete plan” to deal with the protest – wasn’t exactly comforting to citizens of Ottawa, or to other concerned Canadians.

But in the world of disaster and emergency management we hear such messages all the time.

It is more or less a universal experience that when authorities fumble in their responsibility to plan for and protect us from events such as disasters caused by natural or technical hazards, pandemics such as COVID-19, or the protests in Ottawa, they tend to pump up the situation to make it something so extreme that no one could have seen it coming.

This is what I call “exceptionalizing” an event: making it legend or mythical, something that could not have been expected or planned for. This lets our leaders off the hook for not being ready.

Now, sometimes the powers that be aren’t exaggerating. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the Halifax Explosion of 1917 are often held up in disaster literature as genuine examples of extraordinary events that were truly difficult to foresee.

But all too often, everything else gets lumped into this category as well – almost always to help those who failed to plan and prepare cover their tracks.

So officials give natural hazard events mythical names and anthropomorphize (assign humanlike qualities to) or zoomorphize (assign animallike qualities to) them. Hence, they called the May, 2016, wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., and the Dec. 10, 2021, tornado in Kentucky, “the Beast.” Names of disasters often start with “the Great” (the Great Ice Storm of 1998, the Great Cyclone of 1896 or the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927). They named 2012′s Hurricane Sandy “Superstorm Sandy.” The list goes on.

They improperly label events such as the COVID-19 pandemic as a Black Swan, a term reserved for the most unique of the unique.

We hear words and phrases such as, “Nobody could have seen this coming,” and, “It was just too big, even if we had done something, it wouldn’t have made a difference.” In the case of natural hazards, blame gets pushed over to God or to Mother Nature. In the case of technical events, such as plane crashes or pipeline spills, blame get shifted to human error or terrorism.

Our leaders then get to wash their hands.

But when we carefully dissect an event (usually after the fact), we understand that plenty could have been done to foresee it and put measures into place to prevent it from happening or – at the very least – to minimize the impact.

In the case of the prolonged protest in Ottawa, we can see that it was not caused by a sudden large earthquake on a previously unknown fault line. This was a wildfire that started 10 ridges over, and actions could have been taken to keep the fire out of town.

This past weekend, hundreds of trucks and large crowds of protesters descended on downtown Toronto. But things were different there. The city protected “hospital row” – an area downtown that is home to several hospitals – by blocking off streets ahead of time. From the get-go, the ground rules were laid out and there was a large police presence. Protesters remained for a time, but were largely gone by Sunday.

Perhaps the Toronto Police Service simply learned from Ottawa Police and took another approach.

But more likely than not, they had a plan.

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