By Laura Osman and David Fraser in Ottawa
Ottawa has dealt with a fair number of serious crises over the last few years. A massive and destructive windstorm, floods, a giant sinkhole that swallowed a busy downtown throughway and, of course, a global pandemic.
Each time, Coun. Mathieu Fleury says he recalls a white table was erected with name tags for all the key leaders in the response, where they would come together to make a plan.
But when a convoy of big-rig trucks arrived in Ottawa to launch a protest that would drag on for weeks and precipitate the use of the federal Emergencies Act, there was no such table.
“I didn’t see that white table situation and out of all the crises I’ve seen, it’s a bit unique that I didn’t see that,” Fleury said Friday as a witness in the inquiry of the federal government’s inaugural use of the Emergencies Act.
Fleury and his fellow downtown councillor Catherine McKenney, who is running for mayor, told the inquiry they would forward increasingly desperate emails from residents to city officials and the mayor but would get little back in the way of a plan to deal with what they called an “occupation” of the capital city.
The testimony was part of a blaring introduction to life in Ottawa during the “Freedom Convoy” protest, complete with a recording of the deafening chorus of big-rig horns that was played for the commission.
The first witness, a legally blind resident of downtown Ottawa, flinched as a recording of the horns resounded in the conference room for the benefit of the commissioner, lawyers, protest convoy organizers and members of the public.
The witness, Victoria De La Ronde, told the commission the protest that arrived in Ottawa in late January was an “assault on my hearing,” which she relied on to navigate the city independently.
“I found myself trapped,” said De La Ronde, who was left feeling hopeless and unable to leave her home.
She became emotional as she told the commission she eventually begged a friend to pick her up and help her leave the convoy zone. A few days later, she and her friend both contracted COVID-19.
In the days after the protest ended, De La Ronde said, she could still hear phantom horns blaring in her head. Even now, the sound of a car horn ripples through her body, fraying her nerves, she said.
Convoy organizer Tamara Lich listened stoically from the public gallery as the lawyer representing her and fellow organizers told De La Ronde he was sorry for the hardship she endured during the protest.
The commission is examining the evolution and goals of the protest, the effect of misinformation and disinformation on the convoy, and the efforts of police before and after the emergency declaration.
“It didn’t feel safe, my guard was up all the time,” downtown resident Zexi Li said of walking the Ottawa streets during the protest.
Li, a 22-year-old public servant, launched a class-action lawsuit against convoy organizers Feb. 3, and an Ontario court granted her an injunction four days later to stop the honking.
On Feb. 14, the federal Liberals invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time as protesters opposed to COVID-19 public health measures and the Trudeau government occupied downtown Ottawa streets and blockaded border crossings.
The law temporarily granted police extraordinary powers and allowed banks to freeze accounts, which the government argues was critical to ending the protests.
Both Li and De La Ronde described feeling sleep-deprived by the constant noise rising from the street.
Evidence provided to the commission showed the noise levels outside their homes reached 100 decibels at times — about as loud as a lawn mower.
“There was fear,” McKenney said. The councillor told the committee residents felt “under threat,” particularly on residential streets.
McKenney would often walk the streets during the convoy and spot safety hazards like open fires near jerry cans of fuel or fireworks.
“Everything combined just made for an exceptionally dangerous environment for people, feet away from their bedrooms, children’s living areas, school in the downtown,” McKenney said.
Both McKenney and Fleury said people felt abandoned by the police.
The downtown city councillors said that in the early days of the protest, the city was slow to respond. Even around the council table, their colleagues seemed keen to push on with usual business at virtual meetings they attended from home, while trucks blared outside of city hall.
Over the course of the crisis, councillors pitched several solutions: an injunction, a curfew, handing jurisdiction of the parliamentary precinct to the RCMP.
At one point, a motion was put forward at council to ask the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act, but that motion was defeated.
Those solutions either never took off or were slow to arrive, Fleury said, adding even the mayor’s declaration of a state of emergency came too late.
In late January, when trucks began to roll into Ottawa, businesses were still shut under a provincial public health order. Some chose to open when the order was lifted during the protest, but others remained closed, said Nathalie Carrier, executive director of the Vanier Business Improvement Area.
In some ways, the convoy proved even more devastating than COVID-19 public health measures, Carrier told the commission, since road closures and other disruptions prevented staff from coming to work and deliveries being made. At times, food delivery services would not enter the area.
“Businesses were completely crippled,” said Carrier, whose association represents a neighbourhood east of downtown Ottawa.
Rideau Centre Mall, which contains hundreds of businesses and typically only closes for Christmas, shut its doors on the first weekend of the demonstration and remained closed for 25 days.
At the time, police advised people to avoid the city core.
Carrier recalled then-Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly commiserating with local business groups and saying he was scared as well, though the former chief’s counsel disputed the claim.
In times of crisis, “you turn to your leaders to have a plan and to be stable and I remember very specifically feeling … that maybe our leaders were a little shaken, and that’s scary,” she said.
The testimony of the witnesses was compelling, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said in a statement, but did not shed light on why police needed extraordinary powers.
“The impact on Ottawa residents and Ottawa businesses does not explain why a public order emergency was declared affecting the entire country,” the statement read.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2022.
Banner image via The Canadian Press