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Public awareness of the options facing police in protest situations isn’t anywhere close to where it needs to be

Flag-waving protesters in downtown Ottawa in February, 2022, and near the entrance to Ontario’s Ipperwash Provincial Park in September, 1995. Justin Tang and Moe Doiron/The Canadian Press

Paul Wells is a journalist and author based in Ottawa. This is adapted from his coming book An Emergency in Ottawa: The Story of the Convoy Commission.

Three times in the second week of the 2022 convoy protests, the Ottawa Police Service tried to shrink its footprint and make it less hazardous.

The first operation happened in Confederation Park, across the street from Ottawa’s City Hall, on Feb. 4. Within days after the trucks parked, some of the protesters had built a wooden shack in the park. They were also stockpiling fuel nearby. The neighbours weren’t thrilled by the juxtaposition of wood and fuel, and the shack was tangible, photogenic evidence that the convoy wasn’t planning on leaving soon.

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An Ottawa municipal police car sits beside the protesters' wooden shack at Confederation Park on Feb. 6, 2022.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The Ottawa police plan to clear Confederation Park began with the service’s police liaison team. Most large Canadian police forces have liaison teams. They exist to work with protesters as much as possible. All those furious Ottawa residents who were sure the police were in cahoots with the protesters? Turns out some of them kind of were.

At Confederation Park, the police liaison team urged the protesters to pack up and protest somewhere else with a little less hardware. This didn’t work. The liaison team noted that some of the protesters were Indigenous. Fortunately, the team knew some Algonquin elders who were brought in to tell the protesters they should go. This didn’t work either, and the liaison team had to escort the elders out of the park.

The liaison team presented the protesters with a letter from the National Capital Commission saying it was time to go or else the Ottawa police public order units would clear the park. Public order units are the enforcers people demand when they don’t like protesters. A lot of recent trends in policing have to do with using these units as a last resort. When the written notice from the National Capital Commission went up on the following Sunday, telling people it was time to leave, most did. The police service removed the shack without further event. It was a modest but heartening success.

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Police officers escort cars out of a lot on Coventry Road on Feb. 6, 2022.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

The second Ottawa police operation to shrink the convoy’s footprint was at the protesters’ secondary tactical base on Coventry Road, a short drive from Parliament Hill, on Feb. 6. It, too, worked, after a fashion. But because leadership had applied none of the lessons it should have learned from Confederation Park, its short-term success came at heavy cost to internal police service cohesion and to whatever trust had been built with the protesters.

The third operation was planned for the intersections of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive, normally one of the busiest intersections in Ottawa’s Centretown, and a place where the protesters were particularly rowdy and uncontrollable. That one collapsed before it began, due to internal dissent within the police service that was not far from mutiny.

The commission lawyers quizzed every police witness about two things: why they didn’t know the protest would turn into a siege, and whether they thought the Emergencies Act was needed. They got varying answers to both questions. I found myself asking an altogether different question:

Where did these police liaison teams – with their close consultation with protesters, their non-judgmental stance, their preference for negotiated outcomes instead of arrests – come from?

Scenes from Ottawa in 2022: Police stand guard as workers erect concrete barriers on Feb. 5, and confront protesters over an illegal fire on Feb. 9. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press; Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Scenes from Ottawa in 2022: Police stand guard as workers erect concrete barriers on Feb. 5, and confront protesters over an illegal fire on Feb. 9. Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press; Blair Gable/Reuters

Much of the answer came from the leader of the OPP’s Provincial Liaison Team, Inspector Marcel Beaudin. He was a frustrated onlooker during the early days, when the Ottawa Police Service wasn’t playing well with other police organizations. He didn’t think his liaison team was being put to good use and he was startled to find the Ottawa police liaison team members sitting idle for hours instead of engaging with the protesters.

I should point out that witnesses at the Rouleau inquiry had a choice before they testified. They could make a solemn affirmation that they would speak the truth. Or they could take an oath, using some religious tome – Bible, Quran, Talmud. Marcel Beaudin was the only witness to be sworn in while he held an eagle feather.

In a podcast he recorded for the OPP’s members’ union last autumn, Mr. Beaudin filled in a bit of his background. He has mixed ancestry, he said, and is a member of the Henvey Inlet First Nation, a tiny Ojibwe community north of Parry Sound on Georgian Bay. Mr. Beaudin also described a moment shortly after he became a police officer at age 22. He went to a family wedding. While he was talking to one of the bridesmaids, “my grandmother comes over and she interrupts us as we’re talking,” he said. “To the young lady she says, ‘I want to just let you know. You probably don’t want to talk to this grandson – he’s a cop. You wanna talk to my other grandson. He sells Pepsi.’”

Mr. Beaudin said he’d never had any disagreement with his grandmother before. The warning wasn’t personal, but I bet it stung. Her concern was over his new job. The mistrust she was expressing has to do with the often tragic and brutal history of police treatment of Indigenous Canadians. “Quite often, we were seen removing kids from families, returning children back to residential schools if they ran away,” he said. “I think of the importance in our day-to-day action of restoring that trust and confidence in policing. To me, probably one of the biggest things, when it comes to policing in First Nations communities, is restoring that trust. … Most importantly, having the community or the people believe you have their best interests in mind.”

Today, Mr. Beaudin is provincial co-ordinator for the OPP’s Provincial Liaison Team. Since 2016, he’s been involved in every one of the OPP’s liaison team responses to protests, demonstrations and occupations in Ontario whether they involved Indigenous people or not.

A commission lawyer asked Mr. Beaudin where the Provincial Liaison Team came from. “As a result of Ipperwash,” he replied.

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'OPP kill!' reads a sign at Ipperwash after the deadly standoff at the park.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

In 1995, a few dozen members of the Stony Point First Nation occupied parts of Camp Ipperwash, a training ground for the Canadian Armed Forces and for Army Cadets.

The federal government had expropriated the land from the Stony Point Chippewas during the Second World War, with promises to give it back later. Ottawa never did give the land back. So a bunch of band members camped out for weeks to remind everyone of unkept promises.

Just after Labour Day that year, the OPP staged a raid on the encampment after dark. They arrived with all the paraphernalia of no-nonsense policing, helmets, shields, Crowd Management Unit, Tactical Response Unit. Snipers.

Arthur (Dudley) George, a 38-year-old unarmed Ojibwe man, was shot in the chest and killed.

The government of premier Mike Harris had been in office for 2½ months when Mr. George was killed and refused for eight more years to hold a public inquiry into his death.

The inquiry didn’t begin until 2003, when the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty defeated the Conservatives and formed a new government. That was also the year Marcel Beaudin’s police career began. So the repercussions from Dudley George’s death have literally shaped Mr. Beaudin’s career.

Protesters dismantle a roadblock near Kettle Point on Sept. 8, 1995, two days after the confrontation where police shot and killed Arthur (Dudley) George. Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail
A Cree demonstrator joins a protest outside the chief coroner's office in Toronto on Sept. 6, 2001, to demand an inquest into the George killing. Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail
In 2019, Mr. George’s grave is shown at the cemetery of the former Stoney Point band. At the old Ipperwash military base, a sign painted by Mr. George's brother reads: ‘it was here my brother’s earthly journey was ended by [an] OPP bullet.’ Colin Graf/The Globe and Mail

After this tragedy, the OPP would never again be eager to wade into a public-order dispute with riot gear and heavy weaponry. The provincial force launched an Aboriginal Relations Team (ART) to build relationships with First Nations communities before, during and after a big demonstration. A separate Major Event Liaison Team (MELT) would do similar wraparound work for non-Indigenous protests. A couple of years later, the OPP merged the two teams into the Provincial Liaison Team. It operates on the same philosophy as liaison teams at other police services.

“When we see that there’s going to be potential conflict, our job is to reach out, build relationships,” Mr. Beaudin testified in front of Justice Rouleau. “You know, sometimes people just say the word ‘relationship’ and they don’t necessarily break that down. But to us, it actually means something.”

Like what? “You need trust.” Protesters need to believe that “I have their best interests in mind,” he said. For them to be able to believe that, it needs to be true. They also need to believe that “ultimately, I do what I say I’m going to do, right?”

To what end? Essentially, to put the shields and helmets last, and to work together, police and protesters, to ensure they don’t get used if at all possible. Liaison units seek to establish what Mr. Beaudin said is tantamount to a moral contract with the protesters: “This is the law. This is what you should avoid doing. These are some alternative options to ensure that it’s lawful, peaceful, and safe. And then if there’s any deviation from that, here’s the potential consequences associated to that.”

Those potential consequences may well include arrest. In today’s OPP and in countless other police forces, trust-building liaison teams and more traditionally repressive public order units work together. Good cop, bad cop, you might say. Although that’s not accurate because the public order officers have a profound stake in the success of the liaison teams. And even when the public order unit is needed, the liaison team keeps working to minimize the number of belligerents. “And the reason that we have those upfront conversations is because, typically, emotions and intelligence work as a teeter-totter,” Mr. Beaudin testified. “If someone’s emotional in times of crisis, typically, intelligence gets low.”

The liaison team philosophy is embodied in the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police’s National Framework for Police Preparedness for Demonstrations and Assemblies. The framework was published in 2019 based on input by experts and practitioners across the country. Including Mr. Beaudin. “Relationship building aids in the development of respect, rapport, reciprocity, trust and empathy,” the Chiefs of Police’s National Framework reads.

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Supporters of the Ottawa convoy wave flags at an overpass in western Ottawa on Jan. 29, 2022.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

As the Freedom Convoy approached Ottawa and throughout its occupation, there were outraged reports on Twitter and television about police who were ignoring protesters’ minor infractions and actually seemed to be friendly with them. I can’t speak to every case, but most of the time people were probably seeing liaison teams doing what they’re designed to do: build trust and defuse tension.

In his testimony, Mr. Beaudin cited a bit of pop sociology that other witnesses cited as folklore throughout the Rouleau hearings: that in any angry crowd, 80 per cent would be law-abiding, 15 per cent would be on the fence, and 5 per cent are willing to break laws to make their point. Police liaison teams are trying to make the wavering 15 per cent stick with the law-abiding 80 per cent through appeals to reason, rather than swelling the ranks of the incorrigible 5 per cent.

He wished the Ottawa Police Service’s liaison team had been in there from the first day of the siege, making little offers to the protesters, asking little favours. Seeking and offering small concessions is a means of figuring out who has influence within the larger group, whether they can be talked down from their most extreme demands and whether they will deliver a promise once made. Mr. Beaudin called these traits leadership, resolve and compliance. And it was important to start identifying, early on, people with relatively high leadership, decent compliance and wavering resolve. Because those traits would come in handy later.

I know this liaison team stuff is counterintuitive for people who want police to make annoying people go away, and that it’s disorienting for some to learn that this philosophy comes from Ipperwash and is now being advocated in settings that could hardly be less similar. All I can say is, Mr. Beaudin has been thinking about these things endlessly for 20 years. What he learned when he got to Ottawa was that some people in the Ottawa Police Service hadn’t thought about them.

It’s not just police who need to understand liaison teams. Crowds will face police a lot more times in the next 20 years than the Emergencies Act will be used and I don’t think public awareness of the options facing police in such situations is anywhere close to where it needs to be.

And here’s the question that haunts me. We’re still talking about Ipperwash because almost 30 years ago, a rookie government and an unprepared police force viewed a deeply justifiable protest as a problem to be pushed aside. What would the next few decades in Canadian politics look like if police in Ottawa had given the Freedom Convoy a martyr?

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