The result of this, he said, was “lawlessness” in the area of Ottawa labelled the “red zone” during the demonstration — a three-square-kilometre area downtown that encompassed Parliament Hill and a number of residential areas.
“We lost control in the red zone,” Watson told the committee.
“In the red zone, it was lawlessness. People were having parties. There were open fires. They are throwing off fireworks that were a fire hazard to heritage buildings in the downtown core. They were harassing people in restaurants, tearing off their masks.”
Watson impressed upon the inquiry that “these are not sort of made up stories … these are all documented during the convoy occupation.”
In a note sent to Ontario Premier Doug Ford during the protests, which was made public during Tuesday’s hearing, Watson wrote that the protest was “tantamount to psychological warfare.”
Watson is spending the day providing his long-awaited testimony on municipal efforts to handle the three-week demonstration, after his chief of staff and Ottawa’s city manager appeared Monday.
“We had some people dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We had other people urinating at Cenotaph. We had a group that went and stole meals from the (homeless shelter) Shepherds of Good Hope,” Watson said.
“We had ‘end the mandate’ placards put on the Terry Fox statue. It was completely despicable behavior on the part of these individuals.”
While Ottawa is no stranger to protests, he said that the vast majority of the convoy protesters “were not being respectful.”
“I think (they) were hurting their cause, quite frankly, when you saw the Shepherds of Good Hope … having people bully their way in to get a free meal, that was just abhorrent,” Watson said.
Watson expresses support for invocation of Emergencies Act
The commission is tasked with examining whether the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act in mid-February was justified.
People protesting COVID-19 public health measures had descended on downtown Ottawa, as well as multiple border crossings, and dug in for weeks. City streets in Ottawa were snarled and businesses were forced to shut their doors as residents were subjected to non-stop honking.
While testifying at the inquiry on Tuesday, Watson said he supported the prime minister’s invocation of the Emergencies Act.
“That solved our problem,” he said, referring to the use of the controversial legislation.
“It’s easy to sit back and be a Monday morning quarterback, but the people who were suffering the most were the people of Ottawa.”
Watson said he doesn’t think tow trucks would have arrived to help clear out downtown Ottawa and the border crossings had the Emergencies Act not been used.
“When the Emergencies Act was introduced, tow trucks suddenly appeared,” Watson said. “So I think the cause and effect was, yes, the Emergency Act compelled them.”
Tow truck operators made it “very clear” they were “not going to be coming and helping us unless they were forced by law,” Watson said.
“That’s what the Emergencies Act did,” he said — though he said he doesn’t know this was “definitively” the reason the tow truck operators changed their minds.
The environment the demonstrations created was a hostile one, Watson said. He said most local politicians, as well as the police chief, faced harassment and threats during the protests.
“All members of council were feeling the pressure because they were getting emails from around the world, you know, some pretty vulgar foul language and lots of threats against individuals, myself included,” he said.
A “couple of people” were charged in relation to threats, Watson said, including “some guy from New Brunswick (who) was coming down here with guns in his trunk to shoot me.”
Even as the protest began to settle, demonstrators who lingered continued to harass people downtown — requiring a continued police presence, according to Watson. He described walking through downtown Ottawa and being called a homophobic slur by a group carrying protest materials, including upside-down Canadian flags.
“Police had to keep the presence in the neighbourhood and in the downtown core because there were still people that wanted to do harm to our citizens as well as to our property, public and private,” he said.
Watson testimony raises concerns about Ontario's response
While the federal and municipal governments hurriedly planned meetings at all three levels of government, Watson described a reluctance on the Ontario government’s part to participate in the talks.
“The premier was adamant that he did not feel that would be useful to have three levels of politicians sitting around the table,” Watson said.
“I think he felt it would be a waste of time.”
Watson likened the political response in February to a three-legged stool, warning that if that stool only has two legs, it’s “not that sturdy.”
“You need all three,” Watson said.
When Ontario Premier Doug Ford did eventually engage with the discussions, according to Watson, “it worked.”
“We had the police officers, we had the RCMP and we were all on the same book. But this thing should have been resolved week one, not week three,” he said.
According to a transcript of a call between Watson and Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, which was made public during the hearings, the Ottawa mayor wasn’t the only politician that was frustrated with the provincial response.
“Doug Ford has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons,” notes attributed to Trudeau and shared with the inquiry stated during the call.
While he criticized the provincial government’s early response, Watson also told committee counsel “there were many failure points along the way.” For example, if the federal government had secured resources from the RCMP sooner, the situation might have been resolved more quickly, Watson said.
“All three areas of government and the police did not respond quick enough,” Watson said.
“We allowed that major street — and bled into the residential streets — to be taken over by a group of people that had no respect for the law and no respect for the people of our city.”
Inquiry continues with city councillors, police witnesses
The inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act is also set to hear from Kim Ayotte, the general manager of emergency and protective services for Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon.
Outgoing Ottawa city councillor Diane Deans was also slated to speak on Tuesday but will instead testify on Wednesday. Deans chaired the local police services board during the crisis and was ousted from the role just after the federal emergency was declared.
High-ranking officers from the Ottawa Police Service and Ontario Provincial Police are also set to speak at the public inquiry this week.
Watson’s testimony comes days before Ottawa’s municipal election next Monday, in which neither he nor Deans is running for re-election.
The hearings are expected to run six weeks and include testimony from 65 witnesses, including government officials, police officers and convoy organizers.
Here are the next six witnesses on the list, all of whom are expected to appear before the commission this week:
- Coun. Diane Deans, the former chair of Ottawa’s police services board. Deans, who isn’t running for re-election, was a vocal opponent of the convoy protest and clashed with Watson over how to deal with it. She was ousted from the police services board by councillors two days after the federal government declared an emergency.
- Patricia Ferguson, acting deputy Ottawa police chief, who was the operational lead throughout the protest.
- Three officials from the Ontario Provincial Police: Craig Abrams, Carson Pardy and Pat Morris.