Emergencies Act: ‘Hard for me to say’ if move was necessary, Ottawa officer testifies

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Ontario legally challenges request for Doug Ford, Sylvia Jones to testify in Emergencies Act inquiry
WATCH: Ontario legally challenges request for Doug Ford, Sylvia Jones to testify in Emergencies Act inquiry – Oct 26, 2022

Senior police members testified on Wednesday at the federal inquiry into the government’s use of the Emergencies Act.

Supt. Robert Bernier, who oversaw the Ottawa police command centre for a portion of the demonstrations in February, said that while the federal Emergencies Act was helpful to clear “Freedom Convoy” protesters, he does not know whether it was necessary.

Read more: Foreign ‘adversaries’ may have leveraged ‘freedom movement’ to advance agendas: memo

Bernier previously told the hearing that in the days leading up to the government’s triggering of the legislation, police had developed an operational plan to move out protesters relying on existing laws.

Hard to say if Emergencies Act was necessary: Ottawa officer

He said the Ontario Provincial Police had 34 tow trucks and drivers ready to move vehicles blocking the streets around Parliament Hill the day before the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Emergencies Act was being invoked.

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An inquiry lawyer asked Bernier whether he thought the federal legislation was necessary to end the Ottawa blockades. The office replied: “Hard for me to say.”

“I did not get to do the operation without it ? I don’t know what complications I would have had, had it not been in place and I utilized the common law,” he said.

Bernier told the commission he agreed with the assessment of Ottawa’s interim police chief Steve Bell that the Emergencies Act was helpful in creating an exclusion zone. However, he says, police already had plans to create one of their own under existing laws.

Read more: Ontario files court documents to stop Doug Ford testimony at Emergencies Act inquiry

A summary of an interview Bernier gave to the commission before his appearance at the public hearings shows he felt the emergency declaration may have convinced protesters to stay away from downtown Ottawa and be more compliant with police.

Whether Trudeau’s government was right to trigger the never-before used Emergencies Act to respond to “Freedom Convoy” blockades staged in downtown Ottawa and at several border crossings last winter is the central question for the commission, which has scheduled public hearings through to Nov. 25.

On Wednesday morning, Bernier also shared what police experienced when hundreds of officers began clearing protesters and their vehicles from the streets. That started on Feb.18, three weeks after demonstrators first arrived.

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Bernier testified that police adopted an ethos of taking a “slow, methodical and lawful,” approach to removing the crowds, because they “didn’t want to force a confrontation” and were unsure how protesters would react.

He said once they began moving in, police encountered resistance and as time passed protesters grew more “aggressive” and “volatile.”

Back in February, police announced that more than 100 people had been arrested and many were charged with mischief.

Force couldn't change much about response to convoy: Sloly

The former chief of the Ottawa police said his officers couldn’t have done anything materially differently during the response to the “Freedom Convoy.”

A summary report of an interview with Peter Sloly has been submitted as evidence at the public inquiry investigating the federal government’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act in February.

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Much of what is found in the 61-page interview summary differs from what the inquiry has heard from other police officers so far.

“Chief Sloly does not believe that OPS could have done anything materially differently on a big-picture level given the unprecedented national security crisis,” the summary said.

Sloly told commission lawyers that he was operating in the midst of turmoil within Ottawa police ranks, the police services board and city council as public pressure was mounting to end the demonstrations

He said the gaps in intelligence ahead of the protest show there is an excessive focus on Islamic extremism in Canada’s national security strategy at the expense of other threats.

Based on intelligence reports, he said he understood “Freedom Convoy” protesters’ intent shifted from an initial focus on ending federal vaccine mandates to include competing messages, including calls to overthrow the federal government or repeal laws.

An OPP intelligence unit was producing reports at the time warning the protesters could be staying long-term. One such report, submitted as evidence as part of the inquiry, flagged the “Freedom Convoy” as “high risk” for traffic disruptions and illegal activity.

Sloly said in the interview that he didn’t have any sense the occupation would last for months and would be able to defeat Ottawa police’s capabilities. He told commission staff deputy chief Bell did not brief him on the protest’s potential to be a national security crisis.

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Click to play video: 'RCMP boss suggests use of Emergencies Act premature'
RCMP boss suggests use of Emergencies Act premature

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford defended his decision against testifying at the public inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act in the provincial legislature Tuesday, saying the inquiry is not a provincial issue.

Federal matter, not a provincial one: Doug Ford

“This is a federal inquiry into the federal government’s decision to use the federal Emergencies Act,” Ford said.

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“For Ontario, this was a policing matter, it was not a political matter.”

Read more: Emergencies Act inquiry a federal matter, not a provincial one, Doug Ford says

Lawyers for Ford and Jones filed an application for judicial review in Federal Court Tuesday that seeks to quash the summons, citing parliamentary privilege.

It was Ford’s first comments on the summons after he did not show up to question period on Tuesday, the day the legislature resumed from a six-week adjournment.

Ford said the province has provided two top bureaucrats to participate in the inquiry and has provided 800 pages of cabinet documents about the issue.

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