'Disheartening but also unsurprising': Why the Ottawa police didn't react quickly to dismantle the trucker protest convoy

·5 min read

A convoy of protestors continues to stay put in Ottawa’s downtown core, refusing to leave until all COVID-19 mandates are lifted. Officials have described the country’s capital as being “under siege”, with Ontario premier Doug Ford calling it an “occupation.”

The demonstration, which has been in place since January 29, is being labelled as unprecedented, leaving many Canadians asking how we got here and what we can expect to happen next.

Many have brought up the point that if social justice protestors, like Black Lives Matters or Indigenous land activists, had staged similar tactics, they would not have been met with such a hands-off approach.

Michael Kempa, an Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, says the lenient and slow response the Ottawa police have taken is a result of historical experience.

For the last 10 years, we’ve told police services to have a containment focus in dealing with public protests than they had in the past. Police used to be much more of the front foot, where they used sovereign power to maintain control over the street.Michael Kempa, Associate Professor of Criminology, University of Ottawa

That came to a head in 2010, during the G-20 summit in Toronto. The global event drew all types of protestors – from moderate to extreme to those who were simply curious – but the demonstrations ended up in mass detainments and arrests, as well as all out chaos on the streets. The police and city were sued, tens of millions in damages were paid out and the outrage in how that transpired led to certain legislative changes.

“The Ottawa police basically started by doing exactly what experience and the new laws were told they should be doing as a fall out to the G-20 - allow them to protest,” says Kempa. “Cordon them off a little bit, contain it, only get involved if there’s serious and flagrant violations to the criminal code - like assault, hate speech, arson or damage to property - and then allow things to fizzle out on their own as they naturally do over the course of time.”

It didn’t turn out to be that type of protest. Days into the demonstration, police are attempting to increase their enforcement.

“We all saw this protest coming, literally and figuratively,” says Kempa. “We saw it coming across Canada. We had a pretty good idea, but it was a failure of the imagination because it was so far outside of the conventional Canadian experience, that we couldn’t conceive that what we actually saw was coming.”

Kempa says the current demonstration in Ottawa is layered. There are people genuinely aggrieved by mandates, lockdowns and the government’s management of the pandemic. But the other layer are the streams of a political movement that was looking for an opportunity to organize grinding halts to cities through trucker convoys, which Kempa says predated COVID lockdowns.

This is a far-right political movement, anti-state, anti-Canadian charter, liberal tradition approach to government that has been looking for a cause to attract enough support to execute precisely this type of strategy.Michael Kempa, Associate Professor of Criminology, University of Ottawa

Ottawa police's response to protests 'disheartening but unsurprising'

Camisha Sibblis is a social worker and assistant professor of criminology, law and society at the University of Toronto. She calls the co-opting of the word 'Freedom' in the Freedom Convoy "crafty irony" as it elicits strong emotion and invokes heroism and valour, while at the same time, some demonstrators have donned the Confederate flag, which is a symbol directly associated with unfreedom and oppression.

Sibblis says the Ottawa police’s reaction to the demonstrators was not a result of them attempting to prevent similar circumstances as what happened at the G-20.

“There’s been so much happening since the G-20, where the police have taken action and have acted with force that was unnecessary, I don’t think we can go back to G-20 and make excuses,” she says.

She calls Ottawa police’s soft-action to the demonstrations “disheartening but also unsurprising,” saying that it shows that Black and racialized bodies represent risk in the eyes of enforcement and the public, as well as a lack of trust.

“When we see peaceful protests, there is automatically an inquiry into who can actually behave in peace and who is intrinsically dangerous,” she says. “And the police being as it is, it was designed to protect white bodies, protect and serve certain people. That’s because there’s an underlying idea that Black and racialized bodies present various degree of risk and danger.”

Kempa says police have responded differently to other protests, in part, because numbers are smaller and there hasn’t been heavy machinery like trucks involved.

“Police have been quick to move in on other protests simply because they feel that they can,” he says. “If numbers are small enough and or explicitly or implicitly they’ve been biased against the message of those groups, they have moved in.”

He suspects that the demonstration in Ottawa will impact how protests are managed in the future.

"People will say 'If we went through this whole regroup of containing these protestors in the so-called trucker protest, why can't some other protest group have control of a corner for six hours and we can redirect traffic and let them make their point,'" he says.

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