Skip to main content

Former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly appears for his second day of testimony at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa on Oct. 31.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The beleaguered former chief of the Ottawa Police Service, Peter Sloly, was the first person to testify before the Public Order Emergency Commission as a main character in the drama, rather than a narrator spooling out the events of last winter in a bombarded capital.

What emerged most clearly from his two days of testimony, which wrapped up on Monday, was a baffling chasm between what Mr. Sloly thought he was doing and saying – as he explains it all now from a calm distance – and how people around him saw things as the protesters dug in. Over and over, Mr. Sloly was presented with other people’s descriptions of interactions, and in his precise, courteous and careful manner, he offered entirely different versions of events.

Commissioner Paul Rouleau’s task is to determine whether the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to clear the weeks-long trucker protest in Ottawa was justified. He’s presiding over hearings in the Library and Archives Canada building on Wellington Street, where traffic is still shut out by hulking cement barricades that were set up for the convoy and might never be removed. Mr. Sloly resigned on Feb. 15, the day after the act was invoked because, he said, the public had lost trust in his police force.

“Public trust and confidence in any police service I believe is the number one public safety factor,” he said in his testimony to the commission. “When any police service loses significantly public trust and confidence, that in and of itself is a massive public safety threat.”

It’s apparent that the mutual distrust ran about as deep inside Ottawa Police Service (OPS) headquarters downtown as it did in the blockaded city beyond.

At one point in Monday’s cross examination, David Migicovsky, lawyer for OPS, asked Mr. Sloly about notes from Acting Deputy Chief Patricia Ferguson that said he had been looking for e-mails showing that colleagues had “purposely left him out of the information loop” before the trucks arrived. The implication was as obvious as it would have been damaging: Mr. Migicovsky was trying to establish that Mr. Sloly had been looking for a paper trail that would exonerate him. Mr. Sloly had no recollection of this and took exception to this and a lot of other things.

“I contest Deputy Chief Ferguson’s interpretations of my comments on many occasions,” he said. “Unfortunately, she seems to have taken her own interpretation and great liberties with those interpretations on a regular basis.”

The list of people and entities who misunderstood Mr. Sloly included city officials, colleagues, subordinates, other policing bodies, various levels of government, the media and the public at large.

Earlier, when commission lawyer Frank Au teed up a “somewhat controversial” comment he made a few days into the protest, Mr. Sloly offered half a smile and recited his own words like the chorus of an annoying song he’d been forced to memorize: “There may not be a policing solution to this.” At the time, that was perceived as an engraved invitation for the protesters to do whatever they liked because the police had given up, and all of the anger, stress and powerlessness of a city in turmoil condensed itself into the enraged public reaction.

But as Mr. Sloly presented it to the commission, that infamous line was more or less a throwaway extension of something he’s said throughout his career, which is that police alone can’t solve all sorts of problems in society: guns and gangs, sexual assault, a giant protest. Asked by Mr. Au whether he thought his comment contributed to the loss of public trust in the police, Mr. Sloly said he couldn’t rule it out, but other things should have mattered more.

“Our actions should have spoken louder than words. But unfortunately, by Saturday afternoon, there had been a cemented narrative and I don’t think it ever changed,” he said. “My statement probably didn’t help it. But I don’t think it was really changeable from that first weekend.”

As much as Mr. Sloly has – tearfully at times – emphasized the crushing stress of those weeks, it would probably be difficult to overstate the effects of that.

So it’s easy to imagine a police chief under strain pitching tantrums and making poor decisions as he tries to control something he should have seen rolling down the highway long before it set up a bouncy castle on Parliament’s doorstep. It’s also easy to picture a scenario in which a newish police chief, still an outsider, suffers from a few misinterpretations, and from then on loses the benefit of every doubt with a police force and city suffering a collective meltdown.

Most likely, people and organizations under stress being what they are, it was at least a little of both.

During one extended and testy exchange on Monday between the police force lawyer and Mr. Sloly, a man sitting with convoy supporters in the front rows of the hearing room picked up a notebook and scrawled a few words. He turned and held it up to show someone in the row behind him: “Everybody’s against Sloly.”

It clearly felt that way to Peter Sloly.