The man who negotiated on the City of Ottawa's behalf with Tamara Lich and other organizers of the Freedom Convoy says an agreement for truckers to leave the city's residential streets wasn't given enough time to play out before the federal government used its emergency powers to quell the weeks-long occupation.
"This is a black mark on Canadian history," Dean French said of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, just a day after word of an agreement between the city and truckers became public.
"History will show this was a total overreaction."
Starting in late January, protesters rallied against pandemic restrictions and blocked neighbourhood access and main arteries around Parliament Hill by clogging the streets with trucks and other vehicles.
Triggering the act gave authorities sweeping temporary powers, including the ability to freeze the bank accounts and credit cards of protesters and compel tow truck companies to help them clear out vehicles. Attending any event deemed an unlawful assembly, such as the Ottawa convoy protest, also became illegal.
WATCH | Government should have waited, French says:
Last week, unsealed cabinet meeting minutes revealed Trudeau took the unprecedented measure of invoking the act only a day after being told by his national security adviser of a potential "breakthrough" in the crisis.
The office of the public safety minister later said the minutes referred to negotiations led by the city that were "ultimately unsuccessful" after being "disavowed" by many associated with the convoy.
The government considered the outcome of those negotiations "as a factor in the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act," the minister's office added.
Met with organizers over pizza
French, who resigned from his job as chief of staff to Ontario Premier Doug Ford in 2019 following a controversy about patronage appointments, said dozens of trucks were starting to move from residential areas when the Emergencies Act was invoked.
"Why wouldn't Trudeau's cabinet have waited on the Sunday night [Feb. 13] to say, '[Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson], a very credible, respected mayor, has an agreement. Let's just wait two or three days to see if this peaceful resolution works. If it's not real, then let's put down the hammer,'" French told Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos on Wednesday.
French said he approached Watson about helping to resolve the convoy crisis in Ottawa on Feb. 10.
By Feb. 11, he said, he was meeting in person with Lich and several other convoy organizers over pizza at a downtown Ottawa hotel.
"We were done the deal that night, essentially," French said.
According to a Feb. 12 letter from Watson to Lich, the agreement called for all protest trucks to be removed within 72 hours from residential areas and from the parking lot of a baseball stadium. They were to move to Wellington Street just south of Parliament Hill.
If there was "clear evidence" of the convoy beginning to clear from neighbourhoods before noon on Feb. 14, Watson would meet with Lich, the mayor wrote.
In a letter of reply sent that same day, Lich told Watson the Freedom Convoy's board agreed with his request "to reduce pressure on the residents and businesses" and consolidate vehicles around Parliament Hill.
"We will be working hard over the next 24 hours to get buy-in from the truckers," Lich wrote. "We hope to start repositioning our trucks on Monday."
Lawyer Keith Wilson, who represents Lich on her non-criminal cases, gave CBC a memo from Lich and other convoy organizers he said was distributed to hundreds of convoy participants that day to tell them about the new strategy.
"We need to reposition our trucks so we don't give the Prime Minister the excuse he desperately wants to use force and seize our trucks," the memo says.
Compelling trucking companies to help seize protest vehicles — one of the expanded powers allowed by invoking the Emergencies Act — was cited as an option in cabinet minutes as early as Feb. 12, the day before cabinet heard of the potential breakthrough.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told a parliamentary committee earlier this year the emergency powers were useful in dislodging the protesters who were entrenched in Ottawa's streets for weeks and there were times the RCMP would have used those powers sooner if the act had been invoked earlier.
The details of the agreement became public just hours before the cabinet meeting where Trudeau and assembled ministers were told of the "breakthrough," French said.
"It was pretty clear," he said of the agreement. "I'm surprised the wording from the security adviser to the prime minister and the cabinet wasn't a little bit more direct: 'The mayor has an agreement.'"
WATCH | Power Panel debates use of Emergencies Act:
Some of the trucks — not all of them — moved from residential streets after the agreement was announced and Lich's Twitter account cast doubt on whether a deal had actually been made.
Kapelos also pointed out that another key convoy figure, Pat King, denounced the deal and that some protesters interviewed after the agreement said publicly that they would not budge.
"Yes, there was some walk back-ing and some clarity that needed to take place," French said, adding that he'd "love to know" how many trucks had moved according to the Ottawa Police Service.
"I think it's the key question," French said of the public inquiry that will begin on Sept. 19 to analyze the Trudeau government's reasons for tapping into emergency measures.
Watson's office confirmed this week that the mayor never met with Lich.
The mayor declined to comment on the reported "breakthrough," citing his planned appearance at the inquiry.
A full list of witnesses will be released closer to the launch of the inquiry, a spokesperson for the Public Order Emergency Commission said.
In a tweet last week criticizing the Trudeau government for invoking the Emergencies Act when it did, Wilson said the deal between the city and convoy organizers was signed on Feb. 12.
In an emailed statement, Wilson said the Feb. 13 tweet from Lich's account indicating there was no deal was "poorly worded."
He also pointed to a follow-up post stating the plan would go ahead.
Trucks started to move the next morning "but poor communications within the several police services resulted in the trucks being blocked as they were moving," Wilson said.
More trucks were expected to move over the next two days as well. But Wilson said that by Feb. 16 — two days after the Emergencies Act came into effect and a day police began circulating notices to protesters telling them to leave downtown Ottawa — he was "told that the federal government and new police chief were stopping the deal from being implemented and no more trucks would be allowed to move" to Wellington or out of the city.
Lich was arrested on Feb. 17 and is facing charges of mischief, obstructing police and counselling others to commit mischief.
Other unsealed court documents — which stem from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association suing the federal government over its use of the act — hint at police communication issues during the occupation.
"There appears to be a lack of a plan in Ottawa, with the Chief of Ottawa Police Service (OPS) having yet to approve the plan developed with the RCMP and OPP," read the minutes of the Feb. 12 meeting of cabinet and other members of the government's Incident Response Group.
"During the [meeting], confirmation was obtained that the OPS chief of police accepted the plan."
Later during the meeting it was noted that there continued to be "challenges working with the Integrated Planning Team in Ottawa around communication and decisively of the OPS Chief."
Peter Sloly resigned as Ottawa police chief on Feb. 15, the day after the act was invoked and amid allegations that he came into conflict with members of the OPP and RCMP tasked with assisting the city's law enforcement efforts during the crisis.
The Ottawa Police Service declined to comment on the minutes and Wilson's claims about police communication, citing the upcoming public inquiry.
"While the Ottawa Police Service has not yet received information confirming that it will be provided the opportunity to attend the public hearing, we intend to cooperate fully with the public inquiry and, should we be given the option, will appear before the Public Order Emergency Commission," a police spokesperson said.