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Police officers patrol on foot along Albert Street in Ottawa during a protest against COVID-19 restrictions on Feb. 10, 2022.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Canada’s capital city descended into lawlessness this past winter as convoy protesters flouted basic rules and the police failed to enforce laws and bylaws, witnesses said Friday at a public inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to quell the demonstration.

Unease and anxiety dominated daily life in Ottawa’s downtown core during the anti-government, anti-vaccine-mandate protest, the inquiry heard. With trucks and other large vehicles blocking streets for more than three weeks, residents were unable to get groceries and safely travel through their neighbourhoods. One person missed a cancer treatment because Para Transpo, the city’s accessible transit service, couldn’t reach the area.

Peter Sloly, who was at the time Ottawa’s police chief, at one point told a group of local business leaders that he was scared like they were, according to testimony given by Nathalie Carrier, executive director of the Vanier Business Improvement Area. Mr. Sloly’s lawyer disputed her account on Friday.

“I thought, if the chief of police is scared, something much bigger is happening here than a protest. And that personally scared me,” Ms. Carrier said.

The inquiry, known as the Public Order Emergency Commission, is led by Justice Paul Rouleau. It is tasked with assessing whether the protests in Ottawa, and a related rash of border blockades across the country, met the legally required threshold to justify the government’s decision to invoke the federal Emergencies Act and declare a public order emergency.

The act had never been invoked before, and it gave the government extraordinary temporary powers, which it used to do things such as make certain gatherings illegal and empower banks to freeze protesters’ bank accounts without court orders. The act requires the government to call a public inquiry each time it is invoked.

The commission’s public hearings began Thursday. The first testimony is coming from people linked to the protests in Ottawa. The inquiry will then hear from witnesses connected to the border blockades, and the hearings will end with testimonies from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other senior ministers and civil servants.

What is Canada’s federal Emergencies Act? A summary of the law’s powers and uses

On Friday, Ottawa city councillors Catherine McKenney and Mathieu Fleury said police did not focus on protecting people in the residential areas in and around the blockaded area downtown. Mx. McKenney said Mayor Jim Watson was not helpful during the protest response.

Once the protest “took root” in Ottawa, Mx. McKenney said, the city did not have enough police resources to deal with it on its own.

“We had a residential neighbourhood that was lost, that was under siege, and no other level of government was taking it seriously,” Mx. McKenney told the commission.

Mr. Fleury said the the city was too slow in recognizing the scale of the protests, and the threat they posed to residents and businesses.

As an example of the city’s inaction, he noted that a lawsuit brought against the protesters by city residents could have been spearheaded by the city’s own lawyers. That court case resulted in an injunction against the protesters’ incessant use of vehicle and air horns, which reduced the racket in the city centre, but did not completely put an end to it.

Zexi Li was the named plaintiff in that lawsuit, and she was also a witness at the commission on Friday. She told the commission that what she saw on the streets was reminiscent of a “lawless world.”

Despite the court injunction, she said, that sense of lawlessness continued throughout the protest, which lasted from Jan. 28 to Feb. 20.

Her comments were echoed by Ms. Carrier. The business area she represents is east of the downtown. It was affected by the convoy’s satellite encampment, which served as a refuelling and supply site for protesters.

Over the course of the protest, the Canadian Tire store near the satellite camp sold out of Canadian flags, gas cans and handheld horns, Ms. Carrier said. Near the end of the protest, someone at the store told her it had sold out of knives and bear spray. She said she immediately reported that information to police.

Brendan Miller, a lawyer representing some of the protest organizers, challenged Ms. Carrier’s testimony. She noted that she did not see protesters carrying knives and does not know who bought them or the bear spray.

Lawyers for the commission presented videos and photos that showed horns blaring, pick-up trucks parked on sidewalks and a cord of wood stacked on a street beside an open fire, with protesters standing around.

Victoria De La Ronde, who is visually impaired, told the commission that she lost her independence during the protest, and that the noise had affected her hearing. She said she is trained to walk by following the sounds of the flow of traffic, but couldn’t do so with the streets jammed. The cacophony of horns and music also drowned out the tones and bells at street corners that usually notify her when it is safe to cross.

She said there was no room in her home that the sound didn’t reach. It was quieter in her closets, she added, but she couldn’t sleep in them. The smell of diesel fumes pervaded her home to the point where she wore a mask while sleeping to block the smell.

The fireworks protesters set off at random in the downtown sprayed against her windows. She said she was terrified the glass would break. She testified that she decided not to sleep with ear plugs, fearing she wouldn’t hear a fire alarm.

“There was absolutely no place for me to go,” she said. “I felt trapped and helpless.”