Ontario police deemed the so-called “Freedom Convoy” a threat to national security one week before the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act.
Police have described the unprecedented invocation of the legislation as “critical” to their efforts to end the demonstrations, which saw participants encamped in downtown residential streets for three weeks.
Yet it is unclear at this point why it took seven days before the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act, or why it took police an additional week beyond that to begin clearing out the convoy.
“We did identify it as a threat to national security through the Provincial Operational Intelligence Bureau on or about the 7th of February,” said Thomas Carrique, commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
Carrique did not say during testimony before the House of Commons public safety committee on Thursday what led the police to make that assessment.
He was asked specifically whether the determination was made due to any ties to “far-right” groups.
“This is not the appropriate venue to get into the specifics of intelligence,” Carrique responded.
Global News asked the office of Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino whether the Ontario Provincial Police shared that assessment with federal authorities, when he was made aware of the determination that the convoy posed a national security threat, and when the work began to invoke the legislation.
In response, a spokesperson for the minister said the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was a “last resort.”
“We were in constant contact with law enforcement at every level, and continually assessed the risks as the illegal blockades unfolded,” said press secretary Alex Cohen.
“From before the blockade’s arrival in Ottawa to the revocation of the Act, Minister Mendicino and his team were in close touch with law enforcement and national security officials to ensure they had the latest information.”
Cohen added: “National security is one, but not the only factor that goes into the triggering of the Emergencies Act.”
He said that to meet the test laid out for invoking the Emergencies Act, the government had to be satisfied that “all existing authorities had been exhausted and were not effective” at ending the blockades.
“In the same vein, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act only after the City of Ottawa and Province of Ontario had already declared a state of emergency and after law enforcement had exhausted all existing authorities to attempt to resolve the situation,” said Cohen.
“When that did not occur, we took the necessary and responsible step of triggering the Act.”
The convoy arrived in the nation’s capital on Jan. 28.
Quickly, reports emerged from local residents describing encounters with participants that they said constituted abuse, harassment, intimidation and hateful conduct.
Those were in addition to complaints about the blaring of truck horns and air horns that continued in many areas over the course of the three weeks despite court injunctions ordering them to stop.
Ottawa police repeatedly came under heated criticism from residents struggling to understand why the force allowed the convoy to encamp in residential streets, which surround Parliament Hill, as well as over concerns about a lack of enforcement of the laws and local ordinances.
Convoy organizers and participants repeatedly refused to leave.
On Feb. 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, which had never before been used and which granted a range of additional powers that police have billed as “crucial” to allowing them to prohibit pedestrian and vehicle access to a secure zone.
And it wasn’t until Feb. 18 that a multijurisdictional police effort began to clear out the convoy.
Steve Bell, interim chief of the Ottawa Police Service, said there have been 230 arrests with 118 people criminally charged with more than 400 criminal counts to date.
Bell said no charges to date have been laid in relation to weapons but that investigations continue.
“At no point did we lay any firearms-related charges,” Bell said, noting that “information and intelligence was received prior to the demobilization of the demonstration around the existence of firearms within the footprint.”
“Investigations relating to weapons offences continue and upon the completion of them, we’ll be able to provide information if there are ultimately charges laid.”
He was asked whether he would describe the convoy as “peaceful” and “unobtrusive.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” he answered.
Why didn't police act sooner on the convoy?
Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi and Ottawa City Councillor Catherine McKenney are among the representatives for parts of the downtown core hit hardest by the convoy who have described the blaring of horns as “torturous” for residents.
Intense public frustration levied at police built over the course of the demonstration, which Bell described as an “occupation.” But it was the initial decision to allow big rigs and convoy vehicles to encamp on downtown streets that has been among the central points of criticism of police conduct.
Bell replaced Chief Peter Sloly, who had led the initial police response to the convoy and resigned on Feb. 15 amid heavy criticisms of his leadership on the matter.
In questioning about that initial response, Bell pointed to the information police had at the time.
“The original intelligence we had had a much smaller footprint of the people I would call ‘motivated’ to stay for a much longer period of time,” he said, before adding it was at a “very early” stage that police view the shift from a legal protest to “illegal” demonstration.
He also pushed back at questions suggesting that police could have acted sooner to clear out the convoy because of the fact that they were able to remove blockades at sites like the Ambassador Bridge between Ontario and Michigan without the powers of the Emergencies Act.
“I would debate the definition of ‘similar,'” Bell said when asked why police responded differently in Ottawa than to “similar” scenarios at three border crossing blockades.
“Border protests in un-residential areas are considerably different than an occupation of what amassed to roughly 20 square blocks in the centre of a major municipality within the country, in front of a Parliament,” Bell told the committee.
“The characterization of the other three demonstrations and where they were situated, along with the scope and scale, I don’t think is comparable to what happened in the streets of Ottawa.”