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Protesters participating in a cross-country truck convoy protesting measures taken by authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 and vaccine mandates walk near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Jan. 29, 2022.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A senior Ottawa police commander told the Emergencies Act inquiry the force should have given more credence to intelligence reports that suggested convoy protesters could remain in the capital for a long period of time.

Once the protest got underway, the force was beset by staffing issues, power struggles and communications failures, according to the commander, Acting Deputy Chief Patricia Ferguson.

Deputy Chief Ferguson told the inquiry on Thursday the service had planned for a standard protest, which it expected to last through only one weekend. But police knew at the end of January that large numbers of trucks and other vehicles were heading for Ottawa, and Ontario Provincial Police intelligence reports had already suggested the protest could last much longer.

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“Do you agree that that initial plan was largely a boilerplate plan that followed the standard template?” asked Frank Au, senior counsel for the inquiry. “Yes,” Deputy Chief Ferguson replied, adding that the plan included “standard components.”

The police force operated without any concrete plan for more than a week after the start of the protest on Jan. 28, according to her testimony and evidence presented at the inquiry.

The inquiry also heard on Thursday that the Ottawa police at one point proposed what a senior Ontario Provincial Police commander described as a “dangerous” and ill-considered plan to “take down” one section of the protest.

Deputy Chief Ferguson testified that Peter Sloly, who was the city’s police chief until he resigned near the end of the protest, appeared reluctant to share power with other police services. She acknowledged that the protest might have been brought under control more quickly if the Ottawa police had integrated with other police forces sooner.

“I think he felt that he was the chief in the police of jurisdiction, and he wanted that to be maintained,” Deputy Chief Ferguson said of Mr. Sloly.

A summary of a previous interview the inquiry’s counsel conducted with the Deputy Chief suggests she was concerned Mr. Sloly was being influenced by Navigator, a crisis communications firm. “In the last several weeks, there have been daily Navigator prep meetings for command,” say notes she took on Feb. 14, which were quoted in the interview summary. “I believe it has begun to drive our operations and influence the Chief’s decision around things like enforcement.”

The inquiry, which is called the Public Order Emergency Commission, is being led by Justice Paul Rouleau. It is studying whether the convoy protests that took place in Ottawa and at Canada-U.S. border crossings met the threshold required for the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act. The legislation had never been used previously. It granted Ottawa extraordinary powers, which it used to crack down on demonstrators.

The commission has completed the first of six weeks of public hearings aimed at answering that question. It has not yet heard from federal officials, or from Mr. Sloly.

During the first days of evidence and testimony, commission lawyers established that Ottawa police received many warnings about the convoy ahead of time, including several OPP intelligence reports. Those reports highlighted the potential for an extended demonstration with highly motivated protesters who could gridlock parts of Ottawa, including Parliament Hill.

At the time, Deputy Chief Ferguson supervised the service’s special events unit and was the major incident commander for the police response to the convoy.

In the interview summary, Deputy Chief Ferguson said she was not aware of the intelligence reports until a week after the protesters had taken up residence on streets in front of Parliament Hill and in surrounding neighbourhoods. But in testimony on Thursday she said one of those intelligence reports had been e-mailed to her the day before the convoy arrived.

Her own police force’s pre-arrival plan warned that the convoy “will be able to stop and effectively shut down movement.” But the plan still anticipated a weekend-long event.

In her testimony, the Deputy Chief said she realized two days into the protest that the demonstrators were not going to leave that weekend.

Internal police e-mails suggest the service was aware of the long-term potential of the protest even before the first weekend. One e-mail, forwarded to Deputy Chief Ferguson on Jan. 24, four days before the protest began in earnest, notes that the demonstrators had collected $3.5-million in an online fundraiser, and that “different groups” were beginning to join the effort, including “farmers and right-wing extremists calling for major disruptions.”

“Did we err in our assessment of this? Clearly we did,” Deputy Chief Ferguson testified.

Asked what the service should have done differently, she said, “I suppose we would have given more credibility to the information and intelligence telling us that there was a faction that was planning on staying for a much longer period of time.”

Deputy Chief Ferguson’s interview summary says she observed problems with the service’s dissemination of intelligence related to the convoy.

“The Intelligence Directorate was not forthcoming with information and shared intelligence reports on a need-to-know basis,” the summary says.

In testimony, Deputy Chief Ferguson said that after Jan. 31 the Ottawa police started “floundering” as it became clear they could not resolve the protests on their own. During the second week of the protests, the service had still not yet created a new plan, she said.

Other evidence presented to the commission on Thursday pointed to coordination problems between local, provincial and federal police services.

According to notes tabled with the commission, Ontario Provincial Police Superintendent Craig Abrams, the strategic commander overseeing the force’s staff in Ottawa, received word from Ottawa police on Feb. 5 that Mr. Sloly was “on a rampage,” and “making unrealistic demands” of them and other agencies.

“He was trying to direct OPP resources,” say the notes, which were written by Supt. Abrams. “There were serious concerns that there was no measured approach being applied to operations.”

Supt. Abrams also testified before the commission on Thursday. He said that, as of Feb. 7, the OPP was still trying to get a plan from the Ottawa police for ending the convoy.

It was on Feb. 8 that an “Integrated Planning Team,” jointly headed by the OPP and the RCMP, arrived in Ottawa.

Mr. Sloly appeared “unnecessarily antagonistic” to the integrated team, Deputy Chief Ferguson says in the interview summary. In one instance, she said, Mr. Sloly insisted the team meet at the Ottawa police building, even though it had limited space and there was “lots of room” at an RCMP building.

That week, Supt. Abrams testified, Ottawa police Superintendent Mark Patterson outlined a plan to “take down” the protests at Rideau Street and Sussex Drive, near Parliament Hill. Previous testimony has described the protesters in that area as particularly aggressive. The planned nighttime raid was “dangerous,” Supt. Abrams told the commission, and he refused to allow the use of any OPP officers.

Supt. Abrams said Supt. Patterson was unable to provide details of the planned operation, including how many people were in the protesters’ vehicles and whether children were present.

“Only in emergent, extreme situations do we ever do a public order exercise in the dark,” Supt. Abrams told the commission. “We don’t operate in the dark. It was too dangerous for our members, too dangerous for the public.”

Earlier in the protest, Mr. Sloly had requested 1,800 additional officers. The superintendent’s notes indicate that, even by Feb. 9, it was not clear when – or how – Mr. Sloly intended to use them. In the end, Deputy Chief Ferguson said, it took nearly 2,200 officers – who came from police services across the country – to end the protests.

A Feb. 10 draft plan created in part by the RCMP and OPP outlined many issues with the Ottawa police response to that point. It said the operation was “not intelligence led,” that the protesters had the initiative, that there was no internal or external communications strategy, and that the command and control systems were “unclear and vague.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14. Mr. Sloly resigned the following day.