Five reasons Windsor had success ending 'Freedom Convoy' blockade, but Ottawa didn't

OTTAWA — By the time protesters blockaded the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., last winter, a separate protest was already fully entrenched in the downtown streets of Ottawa.

The blockade at the border crossing was smaller with far fewer trucks involved, but the economic impact was far greater, according to the federal government.

While Ottawa struggled for weeks to come up with a response to the "Freedom Convoy" occupation in the city's downtown, police in Windsor managed to remove protesters from critical infrastructure in just six days.

The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, the day after the protest in Windsor was cleared.

The inquiry tasked with investigating the Liberal government's use of the legislation has heard evidence that the two cities had very different responses to similar crises.

Windsor had the benefit of Ottawa's experience

Windsor viewed Ottawa as a cautionary tale about what could happen if the protests were allowed to grow. The protests in Ottawa and Windsor weren't organized by the same groups, but both were demanding an end to COVID-19 restrictions.

The protesters did share similar tactics. Once they arrived in Windsor, they set up camp and declared they would not leave until their demands were met.

"The largest lesson learned was not to let this grow," Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens told the Public Order Emergency Commission during his testimony on Monday. "Don’t let bouncy castles and hot tubs and those types of amenities come to the streets."

When police in Windsor learned of slow-roll protests designed to bog down traffic near the bridge, they were already on high alert about the possibility of a full-on blockade and prolonged occupation. Ottawa didn't have the benefit of the same foresight.

Windsor was a provincial priority

Premier Doug Ford told the prime minister shortly after the blockade began that clearing the Ambassador Bridge was a greater priority than Ottawa, according to a transcript of a conversation between the two on Feb. 9, which the commission has released as evidence.

"The bigger one for us and the country is the Ambassador Bridge," Ford said, according to the documents.

He told the prime minister the protests blocked $600 million in trade every day.

OPP Supt. Dana Earley said in her own testimony that her superiors made it clear that reopening the Windsor bridge was an "urgent" priority, and that she would get the resources needed to make it happen.

Meanwhile, Ottawa police and city politicians felt they had to wait entirely too long for reinforcements to arrive.

Tow truck companies were willing to help in Windsor

Tow truck drivers in Ottawa were loath to wade into the protest and help police by hauling big rigs out of the parliamentary precinct. Those that tried to tow vehicles away reported being harassed and bombarded with negative reviews online.

Without tow trucks, police said they had no option to remove those trucks from the core of the city. The federal government has said that was a key reason for invoking the emergency powers -- to compel tow-truck companies to participate.

In Windsor, the local tow truck company was ready to help in spite of threats made against its staff, Jason Crowley, the city's acting deputy police chief, told the commission.

In one case, a tow-truck driver was surrounded by threatening protesters carrying tire irons, the commission heard.

Towing was a major element of Windsor's traffic plan, which called for vehicles to be removed from the nearby high school and private property.

Windsor adopted a joint command with OPP

Supt. Earley was named the incident commander for the OPP assigned to the Windsor blockade on Feb. 9, and told the commission she received a very warm welcome from the Windsor police.

Right from the start, they shared command, she said.

Earley said she had ultimate authority over operational plans because of the number of officers the OPP brought to the operation, but she was sure to keep Windsor police informed.

"It was seamless and we supported each other," Earley said, describing a sense of trust and confidence on both sides.

That stands in stark contrast to what other witnesses say unfolded in Ottawa when support arrived from OPP, RCMP and other cities.

They were treated with suspicion and mistrust by the Ottawa police chief at the time, the commission was told earlier this month.

Retired chief supt. Carson Pardy said former chief Peter Sloly felt there were people in the provincial ministry who wanted him to fail.

Ottawa did not relinquish control to another force during the protest in the capital.

Windsor quickly accepted the advice of provincial experts

When the "Freedom Convoy" in Ottawa continued after the first weekend, Ottawa police realized they had made a mistake: the protest was not about to end, and they had no plan to deal with it.

Despite reassurances to city council and the local police oversight board, a plan was not finalized until Feb. 13, more than two weeks after the first trucks arrived. Witnesses have told the commission this was due to infighting and poor communication within Ottawa police ranks and between different police forces.

It took Earley and her team only two days to put together an operational plan to disperse the border blockade in Windsor.

"This is why you rely on your subject-matter experts," Crowley told the commission Monday, crediting those experts with the speedy planning.

With a plan in place quickly, Earley said she was able to get the officers she needed to put it into action.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press