OTTAWA – Ottawa police were not ready for either the number or the behavior of so-called “Freedom Convoy” participants who occupied the capital’s streets and “terrorized” local residents, according to Interim Police Chief Steve Bell.
“The original intelligence that we had had a much smaller footprint of the people who were … motivated to stay for longer periods of time,” the head of the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) tested to members of the federal security committee Thursday.
“What ultimately ended up on our streets in terms of scope and scale and geographical footprint was not consistent with what we believed to have intended to occur,” he added in response to a question by Bloc Québécois MP Kristina Michaud.
But beyond the unexpected hundreds of vehicles and protestors that ended up clogging streets around Parliament Hill for roughly four weeks starting on Jan. 28, Bell said police were not expecting protestors to be as disruptive as they were either.
Residents of downtown Ottawa reported being subject to a constant blaring of truck and car horns at all hours of the day (until a court ordered an injunction to silence them), aggressive behavior and intimidation from protestors, as well as air pollution due to the constant running of truck and car motors.
The occupation was eventually declared illegal by police, who now describe it as a “siege” of Ottawa.
“The activities that were engaged by the protesters were not what we believed would occur,” Bell said. “The hate, the disruptive behavior, the intimidating behavior, the noise pollution that terrorized 24 hours a day, seven days a week, our communities were nothing that … had occurred before.”
Testifying alongside Bell, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Commissioner Thomas Carrique said they determined on Feb. 7 that the movement posed a threat to national security.
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That was two weeks after protestors first occupied Ottawa streets and one week before the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act in the hopes of giving police additional powers to clear out protestors.
Carrique declined to detail what led police to see the blockades as a threat to national security, nor if the threat was related to far-right extremism.
Conservative MP Dane Lloyd also grilled Bell on if police had found firearms amongst protestors in Ottawa, citing a news report that quoted police sources as saying officers had found a loaded shotgun in a vehicle.
The police chief never directly answered the question, instead responding that OPS received intelligence “around possession of weapons” by people who either were present or planned on attending the convoy and that investigations are still ongoing.
“At no point did we lay any firearms-related charges, yet there are investigations that continue in relation to weapons possessions at the occupation,” Bell told MPs.
Asked by NDP MP Alistair MacGregor why the protest was allowed to go for so long, Bell said he is reviewing what happened as the City of Ottawa and the police prepared for and then handled the illegal protests.
“Residents of our city have questions about our activities as we lead up to this. I have questions about our activities leading up to this,” Bell said. “We need to learn from the circumstances, we need to make sure that something like this never replicates again.”
In his opening statement, Bell said that officers arrested 230 people, 118 of which have been criminally charged on over 400 accounts to date. He also noted that multiple investigations are still ongoing, so those numbers could grow in the future.
Both the Ottawa Police Service and the Ontario Provincial Police heads said the powers granted through the Emergencies Act were very important to the clearing operation that occurred over the weekend of Feb. 18.
OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique told MPs the powers granted through the Act specifically allowed police to: stop people from joining the downtown protest, limit the number of children amongst protestors, compel towing companies to help remove blockading vehicles and freezing financial accounts tied to convoy participants.
“These tools made our operation very effective and in the absence of having those tools, we could not have been as effective as we were,” Carrique said
Bell said his force is currently investigating service members who were found to have contributed to one of the many online crowdfunding campaigns for the protestors, such as on GoFundMe and GiveSendGo. A list of donors to some of those campaigns were later leaked publicly.
“Members that support this activity do not share the values of this organization” Bell said. “We have already initiated investigations that will look to fully discipline within our authority any misconduct that is identified.”