This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the full print issue here.
On a frigid winter’s day, one week after the freedom convoy first rolled into Ottawa, I stood in the parking lot of the baseball stadium on Coventry Road searching for a friendly face to take me inside the logistics camp. I wanted to understand how the protesters were sustaining the truckers who occupied Ottawa’s downtown.
A group of men acting as sentries stood at the main entrance in front of a wooden sign painted with the words “It’s about constitutional rights” in bold red. Dressed in my “hockey mom” uniform — black puffy coat, Roots Canada toque — my curious gaze eventually caught the attention of a man named Ray, who flagged me over and offered to give me a tour. He proudly pointed out the two tractor-trailers he’d donated to the cause, which were now stuffed with pallets of food. Parked along one side of the Marriott hotel was a rusty orange diesel tanker, and rows of jerry cans and propane tanks stashed under transport trucks. Each day, dozens of volunteers would take food and fuel from Coventry to the truckers entrenched in the city’s core.
As we walked about, I asked Ray why he was volunteering his time running supplies for the convoy.
“I’m fighting for freedom,” said Ray, who didn’t want to give me his full name. He told me he was a trucker in his 60s who refused to get vaccinated and, as a result, lost most of his income because he couldn’t transport goods down to the U.S. He then asked where I was born. When I told him Vietnam, he nodded.
“You understand then,” Ray said. “This is going to be just as bad as Vietnam if we let it go.”
“I’m not sure about that,” I pushed back, explaining that my family fled the country just as the incoming Communist government was about to put my father in a prison camp to “re-educate” him through hard labour. But Ray was unconvinced.
“Yes, it will be. Canada is going to be like that. Or like China — even North Korea.” As Ray lamented Canada’s perceived slide into authoritarianism, I looked around, flummoxed by the impunity protesters were enjoying. No one was disturbing the massive tent that housed a kitchen and dining room, or the daycare area packed with toys and crafts. I saw a couple wrapped in towels, giddy with excitement, step into one of two saunas on the site. In addition to a dozen portable toilets, protesters also had access to a heated washroom trailer. This was all on a lot leased to the Ottawa Titans baseball team, who didn’t want them there. Yet police did not intervene.
Downtown the situation was even more disturbing. Convoy members rolled into the city under the premise that they were protesting vaccine mandates, but it was clear the leadership team was anti-government. Elements of hate were also present throughout the occupation. A Confederate flag and Nazi symbols were seen on Parliament Hill. Romana Didulo, the self-proclaimed QAnon Queen of Canada, who is believed to be the country’s true monarch by her small group of followers, and who had previously called on her supporters to shoot health care workers, held court near the Centennial Flame. Members of far-right groups wearing Canada First hats clashed with counter-protesters outside city hall. Further down on Wellington, children played in bouncy castles while two men soaked in a hot tub. In a city where the National Capital Commission requires a permit to set up a lemonade stand, protesters were briefly allowed to build a shed in Confederation Park.
Then there was the intimidation of residents and workers by anti-maskers and the constant blaring of horns that terrorized the community.
Police handcuffed themselves by allowing hundreds of transport trucks into the downtown core. Not only could the heavy machinery be used as weapons, it also made for easy transportation of supplies to sustain the protest.
Sandy Smallwood, the former vicechair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, says he asked the city’s top lawyers repeatedly why the trucks weren’t banned from downtown and why police weren’t aggressively ticketing. “In the presence of the city solicitor and the [police] service solicitor, the answer I was given was that they had the Charter right to bring their trucks downtown. For me, that’s bullshit.”
In front of a federal security committee on March 24, interim Ottawa police chief Steve Bell admitted police were caught off guard by the size and scope of the protest. “The activities that were engaged by the protesters were not what we believed would occur,” he said. “The original intelligence that we had had a much smaller footprint of the people who were … motivated to stay for longer periods of time.”
Ottawa police are adamant that its initial information indicated that the protest was only going to last for three days, despite numerous social media posts from the convoy telegraphing plans to stay much longer. Bell said that reviews are underway to analyze where police made mistakes, while pointing out that it was the Ontario Provincial Police who was responsible for gathering intelligence.
Days before the big rigs arrived, the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, a division of CSIS, warned that, within the group, there were elements of the far right looking to destabilize the government. Yet the OPP didn’t deem the occupation a national security risk until February 7. That same day, former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly pleaded for 1,800 more officers to end the protest, which by then had turned into an occupation. Anti-government protests had spread across Canada to Toronto and Quebec City. Truckers had already blockaded the border at Coutts, Alberta, and were preparing to move in on Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge.
Two days later, Sloly admitted that “there may not be a police solution to this demonstration.”
University of Ottawa criminologist Michael Kempa says that unequivocally, racial bias played a role in underestimating the threat and the reluctance to act quickly. He says implicit bias is a factor since the overwhelming majority of protesters were white.
“We have a group of protesters that look not all that different from the police organization policing this demonstration. We all know people have the most fear of things that appear different than themselves,” says Kempa. “Bias creeps in and has a major impact in the failure to recognize the degree of danger the protest posed.”
The convoy’s leadership team also had deep ties to policing within its ranks. Its head of security was Daniel Bulford, a former RCMP officer who was on the Prime Minister’s security detail. Bulford quit last year after refusing to get vaccinated. In a video posted on one of the convoy’s Facebook pages, Bulford bragged about his close relationship with the RCMP, the Parliamentary Protective Service, Ottawa police, and Gatineau police. He urged demonstrators to stay “peaceful” and connect with officers on patrol. “[Police] all know that this group is here for everybody, and I make a point of saying to other police officers, when I see them, it’s like, ‘Just so you know, in my mind and in my heart, we’re doing this for all of you as well,’ ” Bulford said in the video. A close look at the lineup of groups vocalizing their opposition to government-imposed vaccine and mask mandates reveals Police On Guard — a group formed during the pandemic that lists about 150 mostly retired police officers as members.
Bell says at no time were the rank and file given an order to ignore illegal acts by protesters. Yet, throughout the occupation residents watched as police refused to stop protesters from transporting jerry cans of fuel even after it had been declared illegal. Nothing was done as open bonfires were lit and fireworks set off. (This in a city where bylaw requires open flames be only used when cooking.)
Smallwood says officers, unlike soldiers, cannot be ordered to do something they consider unsafe. “The officer has the discretion to determine whether, for the benefit of the community or officer safety, it is better to do nothing.”
Sympathy for protesters may have also played a role in at least one cancelled police operation. During the second week of the occupation, Ottawa police tried to increase pressure on the protesters. With the assistance of the OPP, they had already raided the Coventry logistics camp and seized more than 3,500 litres of diesel and propane, temporarily disrupting supply lines to the core. This time there was a plan to break up the densely packed group of truckers at the intersection of Rideau and Sussex. The zone was ringed by several big rigs blaring their horns and was the site of a street party where a DJ spun house beats on a flatbed truck as more than 100 people danced the night away.
Hundreds of officers were gathered at Kanata’s Brookstreet Hotel, ready to be bused downtown, when the operation was disbanded. Sources say members of the Ottawa police liaison team thought they could negotiate a voluntary withdrawal of truckers. Around the same time, a second raid on the Coventry camp was called off. On February 9, councillor Rawlson King was visiting the baseball stadium after hearing resident concerns that protesters were buying large quantities of bear spray at nearby hardware stores. He watched as two chartered buses full of police officers drove onto the lot — and then drove away.
Those mishaps may have marked the moment things unravelled for Sloly. Sources say he had difficulty trusting his senior commanders. On February 15, the day he resigned, CBC reported that multiple provincial and police sources said the RCMP and OPP had delayed requests for additional resources because Ottawa Police Services failed to provide a “firm operational plan.” Two days later, those extra officers would materialize.
The day after Sloly resigned, Diane Deans, head of the city’s police services board, which oversees the force, was ousted at a contentious, emotional council meeting. The dramatic evening saw her fellow board members resign in solidarity, and her allies call for the resignation of the mayor.
In the end, it took nearly 2,000 officers from across 20 different police services to dismantle the occupation. The price tag for policing would be a whopping $36.6 million in a siege that lasted 24 days.
Three years ago Peter Sloly was hired to repair race relations in the city following the death of a Somali-Canadian man. He was hired by a board led by Diane Deans, the city’s first female police chair. They ushered in what many hoped would be a new progressive phase in policing. Now these two leaders have taken the fall in a movement dominated by white men flouting laws.