The convoy protest that took over main arteries of downtown Ottawa this past winter represented an unprecedented national security crisis to which police were not adequately prepared to respond, former Ottawa Police chief Peter Sloly told a parliamentary committee on Thursday.
“There was no opportunity for us to have a perfect response to the perfect storm that visited this city and other jurisdictions across this country,” Mr. Sloly told the committee. “What we did as a policing community and as a national security community was rally quickly around the reality that this was a different beast.”
Mr. Sloly was appearing before the House of Commons’ procedure and house affairs committee as part of its study on expanding federal jurisdiction for security of the parliamentary precinct to include sections of Wellington Street and Sparks Street in downtown Ottawa. Parliamentarians are examining potential changes because of problems that arose during the weeks-long protest against pandemic measures, when streets were overrun with big-rig vehicles and demonstrators.
During his appearance, Mr. Sloly said the crisis had been underpinned by several factors, including social media, disinformation campaigns, societal polarization, ideological extremism and reduced public trust in democratic institutions.
The convoy and the response to it, particularly by police, has been the subject of much scrutiny. Many local residents have questioned the decision-making process that led authorities to allow demonstrators to become entrenched in the core of the capital in the first place.
Another point of contention has been what happened after the protest was underway, when police appeared to take a hands-off approach to dealing with demonstrators who were filling jerry cans with gasoline and taking fuel to their vehicles to keep them running. Mr. Sloly was personally the subject of public scorn for the police service’s perceived inaction. He announced he was leaving his job on Feb. 15, while the protest was ongoing.
At the time, Mr. Sloly defended his actions, saying he did everything possible to keep the capital safe and to put an end to the “unprecedented and unforeseeable crisis.”
His exit happened a day after the federal government invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act, which gave it extraordinary powers that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the time were necessary to bring the protest in Ottawa, as well as similar blockades at border crossings, under control. The use of that legislation is now being reviewed at a separate committee of parliamentarians from the Commons and the Senate. The government’s use of the act will also be examined in a public inquiry led by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Paul Rouleau.
Mr. Sloly said Thursday that he did not ask the government to invoke the Emergencies Act, and that he is not aware of anyone else in the Ottawa Police Service who did. He said his most pressing need as the city’s chief of police was police resources – namely officers that had the appropriate skills to address a national crisis. Emergency declarations by the provincial and federal governments, as well as a private injunction against the use of truck horns, contributed to the resolution of the situation, Mr. Sloly said.
On Feb. 18, police from across the country moved in to clear downtown Ottawa streets, in one of the largest law-enforcement operations in Canadian history.
Mr. Sloly told the committee the situation that unfolded on Ottawa’s streets was “unforeseen,” but he added that this didn’t necessarily mean it could not have been predicted.
“I have been involved in major planned and unplanned incidents in this country, across this country, and internationally,” he said. “The level of organization, the level of counter-intelligence, the level of logistics, the level of planning, the level of financial resources, the level of commitment – individually and collective – was on a scale that I had not experienced.”
When asked whether vehicular traffic should be banned from Wellington Street outside of Parliament Hill, Mr. Sloly told MPs that crime prevention that can be achieved through physical changes is “low-hanging fruit.” Making changes to things like policing jurisdiction is hard and time consuming, he said.
Senator Vernon White, who served as Ottawa’s police chief until early 2012, told the committee that, following the 2014 shooting on Parliament Hill, he had communicated to Ottawa city officials that Wellington Street should be closed.
Mr. White said there was concern then about shutting out bus service and that he heard there was a chance the measure would be considered once light-rail transit was in place, which it now is. Closing the street to vehicles would alleviate some of the security threat he said, while not doing so would mean a “continued risk.”
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