By Josh Lalonde
While the so-called “Freedom Convoy” has now been cleared from downtown Ottawa, many questions remain about how the Ottawa Police Services (OPS) has handed of the crisis. Many Ottawa residents have expressed frustration at OPS’ failure to enforce laws and by-laws that were openly flouted by the convoy. How does the OPS response to the convoy affect the ongoing struggles around defunding the police in Ottawa? The Leveller spoke with some of the organizations involved in that struggle to find out.
Can police protect us from the far-right?
From the first weekend of the occupation, then-OPS chief Peter Sloly repeatedly insisted that his force’s inaction was due to a lack of resources. The following weeks saw hundreds of officers from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and several other municipal police forces arrive to bolster the enforcement efforts. Sloly requested 1,800 new personnel, including both police officers and civilians. This would nearly double the number of OPS employees, which stood at around 2,100 prior to the convoy’s arrival.
But was OPS truly unable to respond adequately or just unwilling? As the convoy was approaching the city on January 28, OPS tweeted a graphic displaying cartoon trucks and the text, “We respect the rights of our community to speak out. Our role as a police service is to provide a safe space for people to grieve and be heard.” While it would be impossible to conclusively prove, it does not seem unreasonable to suspect that this graphic was a sign of sympathy for the convoy within OPS. Here at The Leveller, we are not aware of any comparable sympathetic message sent to any other protest movement in Ottawa by the police.
This suspicion is strengthened by OPS’ remarkably hands-off approach to the convoy, starting with the initial decision to allow the convoy to reach downtown unimpeded. The police even rejected appeals by federal officials to not let the convoy park in front of Parliament and the prime minister’s office, according to the Toronto Star. Later, they claimed to have been deceived by convoy organizers who said they would leave after the first weekend. Of course, these same convoy organizers had publicly proclaimed they would not leave until their ridiculous and constitutionally-impossible demands were met.
In the ensuing weeks, many photos and videos posted on social media also showed police standing by, hugging, verbally encouraging, or even helpfully directing convoy supporters as they tried to deliver fuel to the vehicles occupying downtown Ottawa.
Convoy members even discussed how welcoming police were in their zello channel, as CBC News documented. One protester said “Any time they came by me, they kinda gave me a high five — not really touching my hand, but raised their hand, gave you a wave, gave you a smile. I would say that 95% of the police that were there were well in unison with all the truckers there.”
The Toronto Star later identified fifteen members of the OPP, Toronto Police Service, and OPS on a leaked list of donors to the convoy on the crowdfunding website GiveSendGo. A week later and in a similar vein, CBC News said it had “matched at least two dozen current and former members of the Ottawa Police Service and Ontario Provincial Police” with the same list.
Reporter Justin Ling also tweeted that a “source in the emergency response team” told him “that Ottawa Police planned, then cancelled, at least one operation after discovering details may have been leaked to the occupiers.” An organization called “Police On Guard For Thee,” made up of current and former police officers opposed to public health measures they claim are unconstitutional, has also endorsed the convoy.
In addition to the potential sympathy with the convoy from within OPS, the convoy itself has direct links to law enforcement. As CBC News has reported, several organizers are former police or military members. One of them, Daniel Bulford, is a former RCMP officer who worked on the security detail for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, until he resigned when COVID-19 vaccination became mandatory for the RCMP. Another, Tom Quiggin, is a former military intelligence officer and intelligence contractor for the RCMP who worked on counter-terrorism.
After Chief Sloly mused that there “may not be a policing solution” and answered questions from the police services board about shutting down the convoy with nonsequiturs like “people would like to know when there will be an end to covid and what was the detailed plan to end covid,” Ottawa residents started accusing the police of “complicit incompetence.” Meanwhile, speaking of Sloly’s request for more officers and personnel, former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson told The Fifth Estate “I interpreted that 1800 number as a political ploy to transfer responsibility around the various jurisdictions.”
“A shameless grab for more resources”
While the emergency measures taken in response to the convoy may be temporary, there will likely be permanent effects. There will most likely be an attempt to use the chaos caused by the convoy as a justification for increased funding and powers for OPS on a permanent basis. (Only in policing does an organization’s spectacular failure lead to more funding for that organization.) Even residents who had previously been sympathetic to efforts to divert funding from police to social services may feel that there is no alternative to policing for handling crises like the convoy.
Only in policing does an organization’s spectacular failure lead to more funding for that organization.
But the organizations campaigning to defund OPS doubt that police can ever be an effective response to anti-public health demonstrations or to the far-right in general. In a January 30 press release, Horizon Ottawa pointed to the contrast between the way OPS has responded to the convoy and the way it has handled previous protests. They wrote, “It is clear that police are only interested in ‘creating safe spaces’ and upholding the right of protest for some communities but not others.”
When reached by The Leveller, Horizon Ottawa member Glennys Egan called the police response “very different than what we’ve seen at other protests.” Egan took this as a sign not of OPS’ supposed lack of resources, but instead as evidence that “police don’t keep us safe.”
Others echoed this argument. In a statement provided to The Leveller, the Coalition Against More Surveillance (CAMS, an organization involved in the campaign to “defund, disarm, and dismantle” OPS), specifically contrasted the OPS response to the convoy with the November 2020 arrests of protesters calling for a freeze of the OPS budget. This incident, CAMS said, “demonstrates that OPS has resources to surveil, police, and criminalize some and not others.”
The organizations likewise rejected former OPS chief Sloly’s claim that his force needed more resources. Egan called this “a shameless power grab”, while CAMS pointed to OPS’ $346.5 million budget for 2022, including a recently-approved $11.5 million increase over 2021.
A downtown resident involved in the campaign to defund OPS (who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons) told The Leveller that Sloly’s plea for more resources was “absolute nonsense.” Given the police’s access to riot gear and crowd control munitions, “it’s been obvious from the very start that the police have been making a deliberate choice not to escalate,” he said.
He also expressed concern about the checkpoints set up around the downtown core as police began the operation to clear the occupation on February 18, “because that obviously impacts the safety of the general population of residents, especially people who are unhoused [or] racialized.” CAMS argued that the police clear-out of the convoy constituted the replacement of one white supremacist occupation by another.
CAMS urged Ottawa residents not to “fall into social amnesia by forgetting that the police did not keep residents safe” (their emphasis) and to instead “mobilize to actively resist any proposed budget increase to what is already an over-funded and oppressive institution.”
Egan likewise said that “we can’t afford to lose sight of the initial reaction of police, which was at best to let this happen, at worst to actively support it.”