Nearly 100 people lined up virtually to address the Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) on Monday afternoon, many of whom were expressing their hurt and anger at the removal of a demonstration in support of Black and Indigenous people early Saturday morning and calling for a freeze on the local service’s budget for next year.
Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly defended the decision to remove the camp as a matter of public safety, though members of the board acknowledged the move damaged the police’s relationship with the community.
Police dismantled an encampment set up at the intersection of Nicholas Street and Laurier Avenue at roughly 3:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Demonstrators had set up their camp in a show of solidarity for Black and Indigenous lives and had a list of 10 demands that included freezing the Ottawa police budget, ending the controversial use of no-knock entries and the removal of police from contested Indigenous land. Other demands touched on systemic racism in areas of education, health and housing.
The protest began Thursday afternoon and had no stated end date, though protesters announced Friday night they had secured meetings to discuss their demands with city councillors and the OPSB for Saturday morning.
A few hours later, a line of police moved in to remove the camp.
Twelve people were charged with mischief and one youth was released with a warning.
Police “blindsided” protesters, many of whom were sleeping when the action began, according to Ifrah Yusuf, chair of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, who spoke at Monday’s board meeting.
Multiple delegates at the meeting described accounts of mocking and harassment from officers during the late-night arrest and dispersals. A delegate also alleged a Muslim woman had her hijab forcibly removed during the action.
“We are appalled by this inordinate and inexcusable police response,” Yusuf said.
Yusuf said police broke the trust of Ottawa’s Black and Indigenous community and “set this relationship back many years.”
“This reckless move by the OPS leaves many wondering, is this institution worthy of a $13.2-million (budget) increase this year?,” she asked.
Sloly defended the decision to remove the camp from the normally busy intersection as a matter of public safety. He highlighted the intersection’s important position in the city’s transportation network and emergency services routes.
Conversely, Robin Browne of the 613-819 Black Hub said Monday that organizers of the protest had worked with city staff to section off a lane through the intersection to maintain access for emergency services.
Mar Khorkhordina, one of the protesters who was roused from her sleep on Saturday morning, described feelings of “rage, fear, vulnerability and lack of security” as police moved in on the protest. She noted that her experiences with police as a white person do not compare to trauma of her fellow Black and Indigenous demonstrators who were arrested that night.
Sloly’s defence of the action in the name of public safety therefore fell short to Khorkhordina.
“How dare you lay a finger on Black and Indigenous community members in the name of keeping them safe?,” she asked.
Sloly also said the removal was done with a “careful and well-thought-out plan,” though he acknowledged the officers fell short of expectations in handling some of the protesters’ belongings.
Photos posted to social media in the days after the protest showed the demonstrators’ belongings — including items such as Indigenous medicines — piled up and collected in garbage bags.
Sloly said the police would work to improve how it handles cultural items in the future, especially as it relates to the Indigenous community.
“In the efforts to secure and keep those additional objects, mistakes were made,” he said.
Delegates also called on police to drop the charges related to the protest. Sloly said the charges against the dozen individuals are now in the hands of the Crown to either drop or pursue.
In the early hours of the demonstration, video streamed on social media showed the driver of an SUV attempting to push through the protesters’ blockade. That incident is now under investigation, a police spokesperson said.
Diane Deans, chair of the OPSB, gave a statement of her own on Monday reaffirming the board had no involvement in the police operation this past weekend.
“I want to make it abundantly clear — at no time did this board direct the events of Friday night,” she said.
Deans said that while the removal of the protest before the board’s planned meeting was “regrettable,” she said she trusted police “weighed the pros and cons before proceeding.”
She and board member Rawlson King, city council’s liaison for anti-racism and ethnocultural relations, acknowledged Monday that the police action on Saturday morning affected the service’s relationship with Ottawa’s Black and Indigenous community.
“I know that Friday has further damaged trust between us,” she said.
Deans also defended calls to increase the police budget by $13.2 million in 2021 to fund reform measures such as a new mental health response strategy and additional officers for the force’s neighbourhood resource teams.
She proposed a motion asking the police to look into hiring more civilians, such as mental health experts and social workers, rather than sworn officers to bolster those teams in the future.
But Deans argued the police budget must increase to facilitate the public’s calls for reform.
“Policing in our community is still necessary and it is important,” she said. “The work that we want to take on requires funding.”
Numerous delegates accused Deans and her fellow board members of failing to truly listen to the public’s concerns if they are committing to increasing the budget before even hearing the dozens of people lined up to speak on the topic Monday.
Deans also cut off multiple delegations due to what she called a lack of respect for the board or for steering too far off the topic of the draft budget. In response, multiple delegations accused her of censorship.
The police board meeting continued into Monday evening with the approval of the draft budget still on the table.