Watson demands greater consultation on pandemic measures

·3 min read
Ottawa police question drivers crossing into Ontario from Gatineau, Que., on Monday. The following evening, the Ottawa Police Service announced the checkpoints would no longer be staffed 24/7. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Ottawa police question drivers crossing into Ontario from Gatineau, Que., on Monday. The following evening, the Ottawa Police Service announced the checkpoints would no longer be staffed 24/7. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is urging the province to consult him and other city officials before implementing pandemic restrictions that may do more harm than good.

Speaking during a virtual news conference Wednesday afternoon, Watson said he was "very pleased" when he learned the previous evening that the Ottawa Police Service would no longer station officers around the clock at bridges and ferry crossings between Ontario and Quebec.

The province announced the border checks last Friday among a series of enhanced measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19.

On Monday morning, long lines of vehicles waiting to cross the Ottawa River from Gatineau stretched for kilometres as police questioned motorists. That same day, Watson told CBC he hadn't been consulted about the checkpoints, and said the province should cover the cost of policing them.

Watson said he wrote Tuesday to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones asking her to rethink the checkpoints.

"Travellers were experiencing significant delays at all Ottawa-area interprovincial crossings, the five bridges and the two ferry crossings," Watson said. "It was costing us a significant amount of money, it was not particularly effective."

Watson also claimed the checkpoints had made some health-care workers late.

"Those checkpoints were causing hours of delay for people getting into their essential work, and quite frankly many of these people were late for working in intensive care units or helping the elderly in retirement homes."

'If we were given a heads-up on some of these proposals, I think we could have saved a lot of awkwardness and a lot of stress,' Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said Wednesday.
'If we were given a heads-up on some of these proposals, I think we could have saved a lot of awkwardness and a lot of stress,' Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said Wednesday.(Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Police 'customized' order: Sloly

Watson applauded the province for pulling back on other measures announced last Friday, including random police checks and closing playgrounds.

"To the credit of the government, they heard loud and clear from a number of municipalities around Ontario that it was not on to do random checks, that there was no significant risk for children to play on swing sets, and I don't think they had a great grasp of the complexity and the interconnectivity of the economies and communities of Gatineau and Ottawa."

We have not rejected the province's directions, we've customized them. - Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly

Police Chief Peter Sloly, who ended the 24/7 border checkpoints after just two days, denied he had ignored the province's will on the matter.

"We have not rejected the province's directions, we've customized them," Sloly said Wednesday. "We started out with a commitment to assess on a daily basis, we've done that, we've scaled down our operations, right-sized them and better co-ordinated them ... all geared towards public health outcomes."

Striking a balance

Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches, who also took part in Wednesday's virtual news conference, said it's all about striking "the right balance" between enforcement and education.

"We are not ignoring any provincial regulations or suggesting that any provincial regulations shouldn't be followed," Etches said.

Watson acknowledged provincial officials including the premier are under immense pressure, but urged them to consult with the city before announcing such measures in the future.

"One of the things that I've stressed with ministers at the provincial level ... is the need for greater pre-consultation when a major decision like we saw on Friday was coming about," he said. "If we were given a heads-up on some of these proposals, I think we could have saved a lot of awkwardness and a lot of stress."