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Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission, Oct.18, 2022 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Doug Ford of hiding during the Ottawa convoy protest that quickly overwhelmed the city’s police force, and talked with Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson about pressing the Ontario Premier into action, according to evidence presented at the Emergencies Act inquiry.

In a Feb. 8 call between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Watson, the two leaders talked about Mr. Ford’s absence from meetings meant to co-ordinate the response to the disruptive protest against vaccine mandates and the federal government.

“Doug Ford has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons,” the Prime Minister said, adding that it was “important that we don’t let them get away from that.” The comments are included in meeting minutes that paraphrase the conversation between the two. The document was tabled at the inquiry on Tuesday.

According to the same minutes, Mr. Watson replied, “It’d be nice if we have something firmed up with the federal government to shame them. Ford didn’t even make an effort to come and see what’s going on.”

The evidence reveals discrepancies between Mr. Ford’s public comments at the time, when he said he supported the police and Mr. Trudeau, and the behind-the-scenes wrangling between the three levels of government.

On Monday, Mr. Ford said his government had “worked collaboratively” with the Ottawa mayor and Prime Minister. Asked Tuesday about Mr. Trudeau’s comments, Ontario government spokesperson Zachary Zarnett-Klein said the province gave the police the required tools to deal with the protest, and that politicians don’t direct police operations.

Mr. Watson testified for more than five hours on Tuesday at the inquiry, known as the Public Order Emergency Commission. Led by Justice Paul Rouleau, the commission is tasked with determining whether the federal government met the required legal threshold to avail itself of the Emergencies Act’s extraordinary temporary powers. The government used those powers to crack down on protesters, including by allowing banks to freeze their accounts without court orders.

When Mr. Trudeau invoked the act on Feb. 14, he said it was needed to end the protests in Ottawa and at border crossings. But the Official Opposition Conservatives have called the move an overreach, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says using the legislation was unconstitutional.

Mr. Watson told the commission that it was clear within three days of the start of the protest that the city’s police force alone would not be able to bring demonstrators under control. He described immense frustration that the province and federal government didn’t send more police officers sooner. If they had, he said, the protest wouldn’t have lasted three weeks.

But, through evidence and testimony, the commission received contradictory information from Mr. Watson. He repeatedly said on Tuesday that the Emergencies Act was needed to end the protest. But, during the protest in February, he voted against a city council motion to explore using the act.

He told the commission there was no indication that the protest would last longer than the first weekend, despite a warning to the contrary from the local hotel association, and despite the fact that the protesters had raised millions of dollars the week before to sustain themselves.

The mayor told senior commission council Natalia Rodriguez that “there were many failure points” at all three levels of government. “We all have to take responsibility for the fact that we did not act fast enough. That the people of Ottawa suffered the most as a result.”

But, when asked what the city could have done differently, he did not have a specific answer.

The protest “overwhelmed the city” at the political, bureaucratic and administrative levels, he said. “I think we were all, quite frankly, treading water to keep our head afloat.”

Since the commission’s public hearings started last week, city officials have consistently said that the federal and provincial governments did not act quickly enough to send additional police officers.

“We needed that act,” Mr. Watson repeatedly said on Tuesday. Without it, he said, Ottawa would have been stuck in a “stalemate for several more weeks,” which would have been “intolerable.”

Asked by the Canadian Constitution Foundation’s counsel if he had asked the federal government to invoke the act, the mayor said that he had not.

“I didn’t ask anyone to invoke the Emergencies Act, because, at the time, I did not know what was contained in the Emergencies Act,” Mr. Watson told the commission.

The mayor did not answer a question from The Globe and Mail about his “no” vote at council. His office also declined to comment.

Cara Zwibel, the director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said that so far witnesses at the inquiry have not explained why ordinary policing powers were insufficient to conclude the protest.

“Police had the power to ticket, detain and arrest. The issue was not that they lacked this power,” she said.

Mr. Watson, who took office in 2010, is not running for re-election in this month’s municipal vote. He is the longest-serving mayor in Ottawa’s history. He also served as a member of the provincial legislature and was minister of municipal affairs and housing.

In Ottawa, protesters used large trucks and other vehicles to block streets in the city’s downtown and other neighbourhoods from Jan. 28 to Feb. 20, when they were cleared out in a massive police operation that included officers from multiple forces. Mr. Watson said that by Jan. 31 it was clear the Ottawa police were “completely outnumbered.”

He first asked Mr. Trudeau for more resources on Jan. 31. According to minutes from the call that were tabled with the commission, Mr. Watson told the Prime Minister “these people had their time and need to move on. We have been trying to get this across to chief of police.”

On Feb. 7, Mr. Watson and Diane Deans, who was then chair of the Ottawa police services board, sent letters to Mr. Trudeau, federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, Mr. Ford and the province’s solicitor general at the time, Sylvia Jones. The letters requested more police resources.

There was mounting frustration between the different levels of government. The provincial government had publicly said the Ontario Provincial Police had sent 1,500 extra officers to the city. In fact, there were about 55 OPP officers available daily in Ottawa, Mr. Watson said.

During the Feb. 8 call between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Watson, Mr. Trudeau said that he had some concerns about how Ottawa police had handled the convoy from the beginning.

Another document tabled Tuesday shows that Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair also questioned the provincial government’s lack of involvement. The document includes minutes from a separate Feb. 8 conversation that involved Mr. Watson, Mr. Blair, Mr. Mendicino and Peter Sloly, who was then Ottawa’s police chief.

Mr. Blair said the Ontario government was “worried about being visible and then being asked about what the province is doing,” according to the document.

The document also shows that Mr. Blair, a former Toronto police chief, questioned police tactics.

“Have you looked at traffic laws, etc.?” the document says. “Peter, I am reluctant to get into the world of tactics but is there incentivizing for people to remove vehicles … Daily, hourly ticketing can motivate.”

According to the document, Mr. Sloly sought to ease concerns, noting that more than 1,000 tickets had been issued. But he also described how challenging it was to enforce laws and by-laws. For example, he said, 30 police officers had intercepted someone with a gas can and were soon surrounded by 100 people. The officers “were almost overcome,” Mr. Sloly said.

During the same conversation, Mr. Watson challenged the federal ministers to deliver on extra help that had been promised. “Show me the Mounties,” he said.

Until that point, many of the RCMP officers promised by the federal government were guarding federal properties, meaning they were not available to assist with the Ottawa police response.

Evidence submitted so far at the commission shows that the other levels of government were concerned about sending more officers to Ottawa before getting a clear plan of action.

With a report from Bill Curry.

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