The Public Order Emergency Commission is unfolding in a room and building as aggressively bureaucratic as you can find in downtown Ottawa, where you have to grade on a curve for these things.
But in spite of their bland setting and bloodless name, the hearings have been the site of intense moments of human emotion over the past month.
Downtown residents portrayed their tormented life amid the air horns. Convoy organizers testified, eyes glassy and voices breaking, about the divisions sown by COVID mandates, the loving embrace of the protest itself and the deprivations they’ve endured since their arrests. The former police chief wept as he recounted how hard his officers worked to prevail in frigid winter conditions and the misinformed court of public opinion.
Many of the people who witnessed, whipped up or tried to shut down the protest have presented it as one of the most stressful and intense experiences they’ve ever lived through.
And then into this maelstrom came RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki on Tuesday, wearing some sort of invisibility cloak of bland calm. She was polite, placid, neither especially blessed of memory nor apparently troubled by its gaps, enthusiastic about certain subtleties of her job, but resolutely incurious about others.
Commissioner Lucki was, by her own description, sitting at the fulcrum of all the stress and uncertainty during the Ottawa protests, responsible for conveying vital information about the operations of various police agencies to federal officials and politicians in multiple high-level daily briefings.
“We always got the same question each and every day: ‘When is this going to end? How is it going to end?’ ” she told the inquiry.
At one point, a commission lawyer asked about a text exchange in which she expressed concern about the RCMP or Ontario Provincial Police being forced to take over jurisdiction from the Ottawa Police Service. “Very early on when they talked about Emergencies Act, I had no idea what exactly that meant,” she said. There was no unsatisfied curiosity implied by the statement.
Again and again the same pattern played out: A lawyer would probe in a few different ways to get at a piece of information, and Commissioner Lucki would repeatedly answer a question just off-centre of what was actually being asked. It was impossible to tell whether it was obfuscation or genuine confusion, and she was affably apologetic after each clarification.
She couldn’t remember much of conversations or events presented to her, and what she could be induced to remember often seemed to have no particular import for her. Presented with chat transcripts from a moment when she and her colleagues were clearly watching someone have a tantrum in a meeting of federal officials, Commissioner Lucki said she simply couldn’t recall what was going on. “I honestly I wish I could help you with this,” she told a lawyer. “I have no idea what the reference was to this.”
At one point, commission lawyer Gordon Cameron walked Commissioner Lucki through an extended series of questions about a different chat transcript that seemed to provide play-by-play of a pivotal meeting. Eventually, it became clear what he was trying to establish: With the federal government on the verge of invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time in its 34-year existence, it appeared that the commissioner did not inform federal officials that the Ottawa Police Service had a plan to attempt to clear the protests using powers they already had in hand.
Is it possible, Mr. Cameron asked, that somehow the meeting agenda didn’t get to you so that you could lay this out?
“Anything’s possible,” Commissioner Lucki said with a verbal shrug. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t recall the answer, it’s that it didn’t seem to occur to her that the answer mattered.
Mr. Cameron tried again, laying the planks of his thesis side by side very neatly to make a little factual boardwalk down which the commissioner might walk. Cabinet was about to invoke the Emergencies Act. You were “their window on law enforcement,” and the information you had to share was that police now had a plan to deal with the thing they had seemed for two weeks to have no plan for dealing with. You, as RCMP commissioner, considered that plan to be workable and it didn’t require the Emergencies Act.
“And that doesn’t get delivered. Your messages don’t get delivered to cabinet when they then deliberate on the invocation of the act,” Mr. Cameron said. “You appreciate the significance of that scenario?”
“Yes and no,” Commissioner Lucki replied, before delving into a bunch of subtleties about the policing plan and who knew what.
Mr. Cameron tried one more time: “Did it occur to you that you should make sure that government was aware of your views on these points before it came to land on the invocation of the Emergencies Act?”
“I guess in hindsight, yeah, that might have been something significant,” Commissioner Lucki conceded at last.
Hindsight is just the darnedest thing.