Ottawa’s interim police chief says he did not ask the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act during the “Freedom Convoy” in February.
The Liberals have said law enforcement asked for additional powers that could only be granted by declaring a national emergency, which they did on Feb. 14.
Ottawa interim chief Steve Bell spoke to a parliamentary committee today, along with representatives from the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP and Gatineau police, about issues with jurisdiction in downtown Ottawa.
The committee on procedure and House affairs is examining whether federal security jurisdiction should expand to include Wellington and Sparks streets in addition to oversight of the parliamentary precinct.
Bell said if that happens, Ottawa police would remain in charge of enforcing the law on city streets. Expanding the parliamentary precinct would enable Parliamentary Protective Services to expand its “security posture.”
Ultimately, solving the issues with jurisdiction will require clarity, Bell said, to ensure all agencies know who is in charge.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the level of collaboration we are seeing,” Bell said.
But MPs on the committee wanted clarity about who asked the government to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since it became law in 1988.
“We were involved in conversations with our partners and with the political ministries,” Bell said. “We didn’t make a direct request for the Emergencies Act.”
The act granted police and financial institutions extraordinary powers to freeze bank accounts of organizers, create zones where people were not allowed to protest, ban people from supporting the protest and compel tow truck companies to help them clear out vehicles.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said something similar to a separate committee investigating the use of the Emergencies Act last week. She said emergency powers were useful in dislodging the protesters who were entrenched in Ottawa’s streets for weeks, and there were times the RCMP would have used those powers sooner if the act had been invoked earlier.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told that same committee back in April that the Liberals “invoked the act because it was the advice of non-partisan professional law enforcement that the existing authorities were ineffective at the time to restore public safety.”
Mendicino also said the emergency declaration helped “smooth over differences in jurisdiction” among police forces and levels of government.
Police have faced a great deal of criticism from politicians and the public for what many said was a lack of enforcement of existing laws and a slow response. Ottawa’s chief, Peter Sloly, resigned on Feb. 16 amid public outrage.
Ottawa police was the lead agency in charge of the response to the convoy. More than six police agencies were involved in clearing what has been described as an occupation of the downtown core, with hundreds of demonstrators blocking streets with vehicles to protest COVID-19 restrictions, vaccine mandates and the Liberal government.
Conservative MP and former party leader Andrew Scheer, who has been a vocal supporter of the convoy, took issue with the use of the word “occupation,” claiming the language of “certain politicians and the corporate media” has been “debunked” since the protest ended.
He challenged police witnesses, asking them whether protesters occupied buildings, and saying “that’s a particularly precise word with a lot of meaning behind it.”
Bell shot back that while buildings were not occupied, the city’s streets were – by vehicles and people who were “terrorizing our community.”
“I think it’s important that we try not to minimize the impact on our community and on our city,” Bell said.
He told the committee police were called 2,200 times during the blockade. They carried out 410 different Criminal Code investigations, arresting 280 people, and have so far charged 118 people with a total of 466 criminal offences.
“We’ve been really clear in terms of our view of what occurred,” he said. “What started as a demonstration and protest ultimately became an occupation of our streets.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2022.
Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press