Policy Brief by Ryan D'Souza.
With the truckers’ convoy that blocked the nation’s capital largely dissipated, much has been written about the police response to the protests. Initially, city police and officials were criticized for their inaction on containing and ending the protests, which had blocked many of downtown Ottawa’s streets and businesses. It was only after the federal government enacted the Emergencies Act that the police service moved to remove the vehicles and end the protests, which had become unlawful. However, in the aftermath of the protests, the question remains: why did the Ottawa police not act sooner? Or was the problem of inaction larger than just the police force? A closer examination of the response to the ‘freedom convoy’ shows how the problem was indeed larger than the police and driven by a culmination of factors.
The Ottawa Police Service’s policy on demonstrations mentions provisions in the Criminal Code that restrict certain activities, including causing a disturbance and common nuisance, which would limit a person’s right to free expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms . So, the constant honking and harassment of city residents during the convoy protests made the demonstration unlawful, according to OPS standards . However, the police failed to immediately act on such disturbances, and the only way that the Criminal Code provisions were enforced was through Court injunctions against horns and the Emergencies Act.
Tow truck operators also played a part in delaying the response and prolonging the disruption to the city. As CBC reported, the city and the police could not find towing companies willing to help clear out the blocked streets . Part of the reason was technical, as heavy-duty towing experts highlighted the practical difficulties with towing commercial trucks without the cooperation of the drivers themselves . However, many companies also refused to tow the trucks due to the backlash and threats they would receive from angry protest supporters. Even amid this failure to mobilize tow truck operators, the police maintained its relaxed approach to the convoy, especially due to the controversy of the movement and the attendant risks.
In any protest movement, special attention needs to be paid toward risk assessment and the potential for violence. With the ‘freedom convoy’ focused on the polarizing topic of COVID-19 mandates, any forceful response could have further inflamed tensions. In comparison to police responses to other protests in the city, which were seen as heavy-handed, the convoy was largely treated by the Ottawa police as a peaceful and non-disruptive protest . While this highlights the hypocrisy of police responses to protests, it also showcases some of the unique challenges a movement as large and volatile as the ‘freedom convoy’ represented for Ottawa. Considering the convoy’s social media presence, its large number of supporters downtown, and the political hot potato played by the city, the province, and, to some extent, the federal government—there was a real risk that any harsh action from law enforcement would escalate an already delicate situation. With calls for the removal of all COVID-19 mandates and even suggestions to overthrow the current government, the convoy’s activities both online and offline elicited a restrained response from wary authorities . However, compared to peaceful protests like Black Lives Matter in 2020, the convoy’s size and dominance in the media posed a greater risk to police services and to the security of the city and the government. Thus, the federal government decided to step in to end the ongoing disruptions and blockades.
On February 14, the Government of Canada invoked the Emergencies Act, which clamped down on the blockades in downtown Ottawa and targeted funding for the convoy protests. With this, the Ottawa police moved to enforce the act and the powers granted to them to stop the protests . They were joined by the RCMP and police from other jurisdictions to enforce the Act, clearing out the protest within a matter of days . There was, of course, some violence and confrontation between the officers and protesters, but the powers granted to the police stopped the blockades and saw the arrest of some key organizers.
The policy response to the trucker convoy has been heavily scrutinized, but the problem was much deeper than police inaction. The lack of initial leadership from the government, noncooperation from the mechanisms of enforcement, and the risk assessments made in response to the protests hampered the police response. Even though the protest would be considered a violation of the Criminal Code and OPS policy, there had to be tougher action taken by the federal government, which came through the controversial use of the Emergencies Act. However, since the use of the Emergencies Act is undesirable and unsustainable, there must be better police enforcement and cooperation to ensure that the laws are followed without any double standards.
 Ottawa Police Service. “Demonstrators.” City of Ottawa, n.d. https://www.ottawapolice.ca/en/safety-and-crime-prevention/Demonstrators.aspx.
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 Canada Unity, Memorandum of Understanding, 2022, available at: https://canada-unity.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Combined-MOU-Dec03.pdf
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