‘Freedom Convoy’ was expected to end quickly: ex-police board chair

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OTTAWA –


Bad political blood appears to have been running hot through the crisis response to the “Freedom Convoy” that gridlocked Canada’s capital city, the testimony of the city’s former police board chair revealed Wednesday.


And new evidence suggests that police forces were planning ahead for a weeks-long event even as Ottawa’s then-chief of police privately speculated that they’d be gone after a couple of days.


Rivalries played out within city council, the federal government and the police service as Ottawa’s downtown streets were occupied by protesters in February, Coun. Diane Deans told the public inquiry examining the federal government’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act.


She even suggested that a bad relationship between then-police chief Peter Sloly and federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair could have caused delays in police reinforcements arriving in Ottawa, according to a written summary of an interview she gave to the commission in August.


“That old maxim about never wasting a good crisis? It also presents an opportunity to settle some old scores,” Deans testified at an in-person hearing on Wednesday.


Deans said her own conflict with Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson “impeded” their ability to work together, and she felt he had shown animosity towards her.


As the situation came to a head in the final days of the protest and Sloly stepped down as chief, Deans secretly recorded a conversation with the mayor in which they disagreed over plans to replace him.


In an audio recording played at the inquiry, Watson denied knowing about any effort to oust Deans and said he hadn’t decided yet whether he would support a no-confidence vote.


He ultimately voted to remove her later that evening, during a heated council meeting.


In the lead-up to those events, Deans told the inquiry that she was sometimes left in the dark by city officials about their liaisons with the federal and provincial governments. “We all needed to be on the same team.”


And before his departure, Deans said that Sloly described infighting within the ranks of the Ottawa Police Service, and she perceived “an intent to use this crisis to undermine the chief.”


The convoy of trucks and protesters began arriving in Ottawa on Jan. 28 and gridlocked the downtown core near Parliament Hill for nearly three weeks. The city declared an emergency Feb. 6, the province followed suit five days later and the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.


Sloly resigned as police chief a day later because of what Deans described as pressure from the public, city hall and within the police service itself. There was “some sort of insurrection from within that was happening,” Deans said.


City council colleagues had planned to table a motion to formally ask for Sloly’s resignation. Meanwhile, CBC News had published a report citing unnamed sources who alleged Sloly “belittled and berated” senior police officers.


Deans said that she and the police services board never lost confidence in Sloly. But she said they never felt they were given a full picture of the evolving intelligence situation, even during confidential meetings — and she took Sloly “at his word” that the information wasn’t available.


Documents filed with the Public Order Emergency Commission show that Sloly told the board trucks arriving in Ottawa the weekend of Jan. 28 could stay for an “extended period.”


But Deans said that Sloly told her privately that he would be “very surprised” if they stayed beyond the weekend, asking: “What are you worried about?”


Supt. Pat Morris of the Ontario Provincial Police painted a different picture with his testimony later on Wednesday.


The OPP was planning for a prolonged protest, the commander of the force’s provincial operations intelligence bureau told the commission. “I want to be clear. We felt this would be a long-term event,” he said.


An OPP situational awareness bulletin dated Jan. 26 and shared with the commission said that “there is no expressed departure date for when participants will disperse or the action will end.”


The next day, a report from the provincial operations intelligence bureau said that the presence of heavy equipment among convoy participants suggested “some convoy participants intend to reinforce positions for long-term occupation in Ottawa; to block access to strategic locations; to damage property; to render roadways impassable; or to intimidate the public, government and law enforcement.”


On Jan. 29, the day after the protests began in earnest, an intelligence report said there was “the potential to pose a real public safety and officer safety threat.”


By Feb. 6, reports said the blockade “appears to have the financial and logistical support to remain in place for the long term,” and organized and pop-up protests, convoys and solidarity actions could be expected locally “for the foreseeable future.”


On Feb. 7, the OPP reported that increasing tension between supporters and opponents of the convoy “is likely to lead to conflict,” and the next day, it said that “the potential for an act of violence is likely increasing as the blockade continues.”


Intelligence reports filed with the inquiry consistently noted that convoy organizers and participants would be “unlikely to have the ability to control, influence or discipline” the “fringe elements” that it expected could pose the biggest threat to public safety.


Morris testified that he was surprised to receive a request from Sloly on Feb. 11 for every OPP intelligence report on the convoy, because his understanding was that Ottawa police were already looped in. “I would have thought they would have already known and had those reports,” he said.


A summary of an August interview with Morris says he “did not believe this was an intelligence failure,” but he indicated “there can be a weakness in the tie between intelligence and operational planning.”


Morris was concerned the intelligence he was providing in documentary and verbal form “was not being appropriately translated into operational action” by the Ottawa Police Service, the summary document says.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2022.  

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