The nation’s capital is a city “under siege” by the trucker convoy that has dug in over the past nine days amid what the chair of the police services board called a “nation-wide insurrection.”
“We are on day eight of this occupation. Our city is under siege. This group is emboldened by the lack of enforcement by every level of government,” said Diane Deans, chair of the board.
“This group is a threat to our democracy. What we’re seeing is bigger than just a City of Ottawa problem. This is a nation-wide insurrection. This is madness. We need a concrete plan to put an end to this.”
The last-minute meeting of the police service board put the decisions of Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly in the spotlight as multiple councillors hammered him over what they described as a “mindboggling” lack of results to end what Sloly, himself, and the Ontario premier have called an “occupation.”
Sloly said that the legal rules in place for police conduct “were never intended to deal with a city under siege,” and told members of the board that the police service does not have the resources to act to end the demonstration, including a lack of tow trucks to move the rigs encamped across the city.
“We do not have sufficient resources to adequately and effectively address this situation,” he said.
Sloly had announced on Friday that police were launching a “surge and contain” strategy with a goal to put an end to the demonstration, which is stretching into its ninth day with participants continuing to blast their truck horns at all hours of the day and night.
Deans earlier in the week said Ottawa residents are coping with a “living hell” and said it’s clear from the chief’s response that Ottawa police have been “overwhelmed” by the situation.
“We need to take extraordinary action,” Deans said. “We need to be able to bring it all under control.”
Sloly also told councillors on the board that he does not know when the situation will end.
“I can’t provide that,” he said when asked for a timeline.
Deans asked whether the city can pursue declaring an unlawful assembly and then a riot in order to begin making mass arrests, or pursue a court injunction, in order to “bring this under control now.”
Councillors also asked about what powers could be invoked and how they might start the process to invoke either the Emergencies Act or the National Defence Act, including exploring curfews.
“We cannot allow this kind of terrorism in our community to continue in this way,” Deans said.
“I would implore our legal minds to tell us what we need to do today, who we need to ask for what authority to bring this to a conclusion.”
Carol Anne Meehan, councillor for Gloucester—South Nepean, echoed the need to explore other provincial and federal authorities, saying: “We have to use every tool available in a toolbox.”
“Everybody’s on the breaking point,” Meehan said.
Ottawa police and security experts have warned about possible escalation with counterprotests and demonstrators. More than 100 people gathered outside Ottawa City Hall on Saturday afternoon to demand the convoy supporters go home.
On the south side of Laurier Avenue, counter-protesters led chants of “go home” while a handful of the convoy protesters shouted “freedom.” Counter-protest placards displayed a hint of Canadian politeness, asking protesters to go home “please” and “thank you.”
Behind the signs, however, was a deep sense of frustration — especially among those who live and work in Centretown after eight days of near constant noise and disruption.
“It’s the harassment we’ve faced over the last week. The noise harassment, the physical harassment, people not being able to go to work, people being harassed on the street for wearing masks,” said Erin, one counter-protester who did not want to give a last name due to fears of harassment.
“It’s not a peaceful protest. Everyone has a right to peaceful protest in Canada, and I support that right. But this isn’t a peaceful protest.”
Police lined Laurier Avenue, forming a barrier between the protest and the counter-protest. Almost nobody on the protest side wore masks, while counter-protesters sported N95s and surgical masks. Despite a few tense interactions and shouted epithets between the two sides, the police presence kept interaction largely to a minimum.
Incessant honking, coupled with booming dance music, filled the air in downtown Ottawa on Saturday with heavy trucks effectively blockading the east end of the parliamentary precinct.
The smell of exhaust and smoke from propane barbecues was thick at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive, one of downtown Ottawa’s central nodes and the entrance to the Byward Market, where protesters replaced the usual tourists perusing shops and restaurants.
A group of young male protesters could be seen wheeling a wagon full of orange jerry cans from truck to truck along Wellington Street, replenishing fuel as required. Families with strollers or babies strapped to their chests also waded through the protest, while a group dressed up in Santa Claus and reindeer costumes posed for photos.
The demonstration had the same party-like atmosphere that characterized the early days of the protest. But the police presence was notably heavier, with cruisers from different Ontario municipal forces and the Ontario Provincial Police blocking off streets and, in some cases, interspersed with the protest trucks.
Sloly has faced intense criticism over his handling of the trucker convoy, which has been permitted to blockade Ottawa’s downtown core and allow hundreds of big rigs into the city.
At the same time, an emergency request for an injunction against the blaring of truck horns in the downtown core was put over until Monday at 1 p.m. Eastern, with Justice Hugh McLean saying he did not know how to craft such an order that would be enforceable.
The lawyer who brought the suit, Paul Champ, stressed residents are suffering.
“Every hour that goes by, there are individuals (suffering) irreparable harm,” Champ said of the noise levels.
Deafening horns have blasted through the city’s core for more than a week, throughout the day and into the night, with countless residents posting on social media saying they have been victims of assault, threats and property damage at the hands of individuals associated with the convoy.
Sloly initially said he did not have the legal authority to prevent members of the convoy from coming into the city, a claim two constitutional lawyers disputed on Thursday.
He also announced on Friday that police will be stepping up their response in a “surge and contain” strategy, and said police will investigate any reports submitted to them of alleged criminal conduct.
Ottawa police have declined to answer questions about how many reports of death threats, rape threats and intimidation have been made to them so far.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford called the continued demonstrations “unacceptable” on Friday and described the conduct taking place on the streets of Ottawa as an “occupation.”
The Ottawa police force also called it an “occupation” on Friday, as did Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus.
“I spent the week undergoing the Siege of Ottawa,” Paul-Hus wrote on Twitter.
“If the motivation of truckers could be understood, the current situation is quite different. I ask that we clear the streets and that we stop this occupation controlled by radicals and anarchist groups.”
Language used by police and federal officials has been shifting over recent days, increasingly leaning on descriptors like “unlawful” and “illegal” in their comments about the demonstration.
And while Ottawa police have multiple options available to them, ranging from declaring an unlawful assembly or seeking a court injunction, to deploying additional RCMP resources or acting to remove the demonstrators, it remains unclear what the day will bring.
Multiple community groups cancelled plans to counter-protest over recent days, though some individuals have stressed they remain committed to doing so despite the risk of violence from the convoy.
Police have said they expect in the ballpark of 1,000 counter-protestors, something that one expert says has the potential to spark violence as tensions rise if the groups come into contact with each other.
“One of the lessons from Charlottesville was that there was just a real failure of the police there to keep the two groups apart and to establish any physical separation from the two groups,” said Regina Bateson, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa studying violent collective action.
She has studied the organizing and activities involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
The latter left one counter-protestor, Heather Hyer, dead after James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into counter-protestors in the vicinity of the rally. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2018.
Bateson said she thinks the new approach outlined by police on Friday is “wise,” and that she hopes they are weighing the risks to counter-protestors from those involved in the convoy.”
“I hope that they’re aware of the risks involved in having counter-protesters and the original group of demonstrators on the ground at same time in close proximity.”
Predicting what could happen next is challenging, she added, noting that there has been growing evidence to suggest that extremists in the U.S. are showing a willingness to “behave in ways that are different and unexpected.“
That can make it difficult for law enforcement to gauge the impact of their actions, or envision scenarios that were previously unthinkable, such as the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, she said.
“This is a moment that demands a lot of imagination on the part of law enforcement and government officials,” Bateson added. “Just because something seems fantastical, just because something has not happened here before does not mean it’s impossible.”