OTTAWA—Ontario’s top cop denies the provincial police gave priority to clearing the so-called “Freedom Convoy” blockade at Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge over the protest occupation in Ottawa last winter, the Emergencies Act inquiry heard Thursday.
Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique said Windsor’s economic importance was a significant national security concern, but was on the defensive as he testified about the different ways the OPP handled the Windsor and Ottawa protests.
The biggest impediment in clearing Ottawa was the lack of a clear operational plan to support Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly and Mayor Jim Watson’s demand for 1,800 more officers, the OPP commissioner said.
“The Ambassador Bridge in Windsor was something that we felt we could clear up in two to four days. Ottawa would be five to 10 days, at least once a plan was established.”
Asked by commission counsel if the OPP received any direction from Ontario’s deputy solicitor-general that enforcement actions at Windsor should be prioritized as a result of its economic importance, Carrique said, “Absolutely not. Never.”
He admitted, however, that Windsor was a priority for the OPP — which deployed 400 officers there heading into the weekend of Feb. 12 — as he insisted it was “not at the expense or the cost of other operations” across the province.
By then, the Ottawa occupation was heading into a third week. The Windsor protests had begun five days earlier.
What is clear is that Windsor was a pressing concern for all levels of government.
Secret federal cabinet documents tabled in court last summer showed RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki reported last Feb. 10 that Windsor “remains the number one priority” for police.
And at one point, as the Star reported, the Ford government had offered to meet the Ambassador Bridge blockaders if they stood down and denounced unlawful protests.
By the time the Trudeau government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 to give cops the power to ban public assembly in no-go zones, to freeze assets, and to compel tow trucks to help police, the Windsor protest had been cleared without it.
The inquiry is probing whether the federal Emergencies Act was necessary to end protests that had cropped up across the country, especially in the nation’s capital where a three-week occupation only ended after a massive police operation.
Demonstrations had broken out all over the country, including several in Ontario. The OPP was juggling planned protests at Queen’s Park in Toronto, attempted blockades at the Peace Bridge in Niagara, and trouble in Cornwall, Sarnia and Fort Erie.
Inquiry lawyer Eric Brousseau challenged Carrique, suggesting that documents to come would show the Deputy Solicitor General Mario Di Tommaso saw the occupation in Ottawa as a limited red zone mainly on Wellington Street. “It was a significant inconvenience, but not an overriding public safety risk, whereas in Windsor, the blockade had a significant substantial impact with economic security?” he asked.
Carrique, without agreeing that was the Ontario government’s view, said economic impacts are a legitimate concern for police and governments to consider.
He gave a lengthy explanation to Justice Paul Rouleau about how the OPP and governments have different definitions of what constitutes a threat to national security.
Carrique emphasized that in its intelligence reports, the OPP flags “potential” threats that require further analysis, and others like CSIS or Public Safety Canada have additional elements to consider when determining a threat to national security.
Nonetheless, he said, police also had to weigh the financial and economic impact of the convoy protests on community safety and national security.
“Economic security is something that needs to be taken into consideration when you look at the totality of national security and quality of life in our communities. If $700 million a day in trade is not able to take place, what are the ramifications of that? I would suggest that perhaps factories start shutting down, people start losing employment, people may start to lose their homes, etc. That’s a significant economic impact that affects quality of life and community. And those conditions can affect crime and community. So it is something that needs to be considered.”
The OPP had early warning of the coming Windsor protests, just as it had about the Ottawa convoys.
It distributed information in a Jan. 31 intelligence report, called a Hendon report, that American truck drivers planned to block the American side of the Ambassador Bridge and Canadian truckers would do the same on the Windsor side.
By Feb. 4 the OPP warnings were more specific, providing detail about the threat of “slow rolls on roadways near the Ambassador Bridge over the next three days, and may attempt to block the bridge on” Feb. 7.
As predicted, the Windsor protest began Monday, Feb. 7, more than a week after the Ottawa convoy protests arrived.
Windsor’s then-police chief Pamela Mizuno, who retired last spring, did not ask for assistance, although it was soon clear the local police were also facing a bigger problem than they anticipated.
By Feb. 8, a text from Carrique to Lucki says Windsor police attempts to “start towing vehicles have been met by attacks from demonstrators with tire irons — no injuries reported.”
Later in an exchange of texts on Feb. 10 between Carrique and Lucki, Lucki advises Carrique she learned from Canadian border services that “Windsor police turned down an offer of Detroit tow trucks tonight.”
Lucki’s text continued, and appeared to indicate that the local Windsor chief was overwhelmed: “Chief of police said thanks but no thanks, we’ll keep it in mind. Our focus now is keeping the peace and I don’t have enough officers. And if I remove 100 vehicles 100 more will arrive to replace them,” Lucki wrote.
Later that day, Carrique tells the RCMP that the OPP has taken over command of enforcement in Windsor and asks how many enforcement officers the RCMP could send to Windsor.
Carrique tells Lucki there are “250 demonstrators spread over 3-4 kms. They have swormed (sic) Windsor police twice already.”
At the inquiry Thursday, Carrique said the OPP insisted on taking “command and control” of the Windsor operation even though there was no operational plan at the ready. He said it wasn’t a question of pushing the Windsor police aside, but in order to develop and execute an efficient plan to clear the bridge.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, more than two weeks in, the Ottawa police had no clear operational plan, to the point where evidence Thursday showed the federal government was “losing/lost confidence” in the Ottawa Police Service to handle the protests.
Still, Carrique said he had no authority or role to assist or take over command and control of the Ottawa operation unless asked to do so by the Ottawa chief, the provincial police commission or the deputy solicitor general through that civilian-led board.
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