Ottawa Police Service's control of convoy protest zone created 'challenges,' minister says

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Police enforce an injunction against protesters, some of whom had been camped in their trucks near Parliament Hill for weeks, on Feb. 19, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Police enforce an injunction against protesters, some of whom had been camped in their trucks near Parliament Hill for weeks, on Feb. 19, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

The Ottawa Police Service's control of the street directly in front of Parliament Hill created challenges in policing protesters who blocked the corridor for nearly a month earlier this year, says federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.

"I am aware now, as you all are, very painfully so, that Wellington Street is under the jurisdiction of the Ottawa Police Service," Mendicino told a special committee Tuesday night looking into the circumstances that led the Liberal government to trigger never-before-used emergency powers to quell protests in Ottawa earlier this year.

"And that did, if I'm to be very candid ... present some challenges for all law enforcement in the response, certainly in the early days and into the period after that of the illegal blockade."

His comments come amid calls, including by Ottawa's city council, for a new model of policing for the core of the nation's capital following allegations of a lack of co-ordination between the Ottawa Police Service and the RCMP to end to the protests.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

While local police are tasked with policing Wellington Street, the Parliamentary Protective Service, under the RCMP, is tasked with ensuring the security of the parliamentary precinct, including the Senate and House of Commons.

In February, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act during the Freedom Convoy, giving it temporary powers to deal with the blockades and protests against pandemic restrictions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued at the time that it was necessary to invoke the Emergencies Act to address "serious challenges to law enforcement's ability to effectively enforce the law."

The unprecedented deployment of the Emergencies Act authorized a ban on travel to protest zones, prohibited people from bringing minors to unlawful assemblies and allowed banks to freeze the accounts of some of those involved in the protests. It also enabled the RCMP to enforce municipal bylaws and provincial offences where required.

Rise of ideologically motivated violent extremists a concern: CSIS

Along with policing issues, the federal government defended invoking the act by pointing to what it called a
"concerning, volatile and unpredictable" situation.

"The protesters have varying ideological grievances, with demands ranging from an end to all public health restrictions to the overthrow of the elected government," read a government statement at the time.

"Ideologically motivated violent extremism adherents may feel empowered by the level of disorder resulting from the protests."

The head of Canada's spy agency testified Tuesday to the rise in ideologically motivated violent extremism in Canada. Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault said the content leading up to and around the convoy didn't surprise him.

"We are constantly looking at the movement of ideologically motivated violent extremists so we have a fairly good understanding of the dynamics at play," he said when answering a question from Senator Gwenneth Boniface. "So I would not say that we were surprised."

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

CSIS defines ideologically motivated violent extremism as motivated by a "a range of grievances and ideas from across the traditional ideological spectrum."

"The resulting world view consists of a personalized narrative which centres on an extremist's willingness to incite, enable and or mobilize to violence," the agency says on its website.

Vigneault said, and the agency's annual reports confirm, that an increasing amount of CSIS resources is dedicated to investigating ideologically motivated violent extremism.

"I would say that we are now close to 50 per cent of our counterterrorism capacity devoted to that phenomenon contrasted to the phenomenon of religiously motivated [extremism], and it is, indeed, one of the concerns we have. We see [it] both in Canada and across the world."

Attorney general invoked cabinet confidentiality

During the second half of the committee meeting, Justice Minister David Lametti repeatedly invoked cabinet confidentiality under questioning about consultations before declaring an emergency.

The opposition is pressuring the Liberals to waive cabinet confidence and release all the information the government relied upon in making its decision.

"I think Canadians will understand that cabinet confidence is a critical part of our cabinet governance system," Lametti said.

"So the waiving of cabinet confidence is extremely rare."

NDP MP Matthew Green challenged Lametti, arguing he had "an opportunity to be honest with Canadians."

"You're certainly impeding the process through which we can get clarity," Green said during a round of questioning.

Separate inquiry officially launched

Tuesday's committee is separate from the inquiry announced Monday into the use of the Emergencies Act.

Trudeau named former Ontario Superior Court justice Paul Rouleau to lead that independent public inquiry — the Public Order Emergency Commission — as it looks into into the events that led to the Emergencies Act being invoked and makes recommendations "to prevent these events from happening again," said a government release.

The Opposition Conservatives argue that inquiry is overly focused on the actions of protesters and the role played by fundraising and disinformation in the event.

WATCH | Minister says Emergencies Act allowed Ottawa to end protest:

"The Liberal government is doing everything in their power to ensure this inquiry is unsubstantial and fails to hold them accountable," said a joint statement from Conservative MPs Raquel Dancho, Dane Lloyd and Gérard Deltell on Monday.

When asked what information will be released in the course of that probe, Government House leader Mark Holland said the government has to consider both transparency and national security.

The order in council that sets out rules for the inquiry calls on the commissioner to avoid disclosing information that could be "injurious" to Canada's international relations, defence and security.

"We have two competing interests," Holland told reporters Tuesday before a cabinet meeting.

"The most important thing we can do is make sure the public has all the information they need to see clearly why decisions were made and how they were made. But we also know we have to protect national security. Those are difficult things to balance."

Rouleau's final report is due for release to both Houses of Parliament before Feb. 20, 2023.

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