‘Hard for me to say’ whether Emergencies Act was necessary, Ottawa officer testifies

Supt. Robert Bernier oversaw the Ottawa police command centre for a portion of the demonstrations last winter

By Stephanie Taylor and David Fraser in Ottawa

A senior Ottawa police officer testified Wednesday that while the federal Emergencies Act was helpful to clear “Freedom Convoy” protesters, he does not know whether it was necessary.

Supt. Robert Bernier, who oversaw the Ottawa police command centre for a portion of the demonstrations last winter, his testimony before the public inquiry into the federal government’s decision to invoke the legislation in February.

Bernier previously told the Public Order Emergency Commission that in the days leading up to the government’s triggering of the legislation, police had developed an operational plan to move out protesters that relied on existing laws. 

He says the Ontario Provincial Police had 34 tow trucks and drivers ready to move vehicles blocking the streets around Parliament Hill the day before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Emergencies Act was being invoked.

An inquiry lawyer asked Bernier whether he thought the federal legislation was necessary to end the Ottawa blockades. The officer replied: “Hard for me to say.” 

“I did not get to do the operation without it … I don’t know what complications I would have had, had it not been in place and I utilized the common law,” he said. 

Bernier told the commission he agreed with the assessment of Ottawa’s interim police chief Steve Bell that the Emergencies Act was helpful in creating an exclusion zone. However, he says, police already had plans to create one of their own under existing laws.

A summary of an interview Bernier gave to the commission before his appearance at the public hearings shows he felt the emergency declaration may have convinced protesters to stay away from downtown Ottawa and be more compliant with police.

Earlier in the week, the commission was also shown an email sent by former RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office hours before the Emergencies Act was invoked, where she said she didn’t think police had exhausted all of their options. 

Whether Trudeau’s government was right to trigger the never-before-used Emergencies Act to respond to “Freedom Convoy” blockades staged in downtown Ottawa and at several border crossings last winter is the central question for the commission, which has scheduled public hearings through to Nov. 25.

On Wednesday morning, Bernier also shared what police experienced when hundreds of officers began clearing protesters and their vehicles from the streets. That started on Feb. 18, three weeks after demonstrators first arrived.

Bernier testified that police adopted an ethos of taking a “slow, methodical and lawful,” approach to removing the crowds, because they “didn’t want to force a confrontation” and were unsure how protesters would react. 

He said once they began moving in, police encountered resistance and as time passed protesters grew more “aggressive” and “volatile.”

Back in February, police announced that more than 100 people had been arrested and many were charged with mischief. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2022

Banner image via The Canadian Press

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