Winnipeg police chief defends response to convoy protest, says officers focused on keeping peace

Responding to criticisms that the protest near the Manitoba Legislative Building against pandemic restrictions was allowed to go on for too long, Winnipeg’s police chief says the service’s approach to was focused on keeping the peace and preventing escalation.

Critics have said anti-restrictions protesters were allowed to occupy parts of downtown area for too long

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth, shown here in a 2020 file photo, says the way the service treated protesters last month near the Manitoba Legislature is consistent with how it has handled past demonstrations, but acknowledged that downtown residents 'endured a lot.' (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Winnipeg's police chief says the service's approach to a protest near the Manitoba Legislative Building against pandemic restrictions was focused on keeping the peace and preventing it from escalating.

Chief Danny Smyth's comments came following criticism that police allowed last month's protest to go on for too long. 

"What I will say is the community, particularly those that live and work in the immediate area of the ledge there, they endured a lot. I acknowledge that, and I wish we could have resolved this sooner," he said in an interview with CBC News Wednesday.

"But we did our best to bring it to a peaceful resolution as quickly as we could."

The protest began on Feb. 4. Protesters slowed traffic and honked horns in the downtown area for nearly three weeks, before police told them on Feb. 22 they needed to be gone by the end of the following day — or face the possibility of arrest and criminal charges.

WATCH | Smyth defends response to convoy protest:

Winnipeg police chief defends response to convoy protest

9 months ago
Duration 3:19
Winnipeg's police chief says the service's approach to a protest near the Manitoba Legislative Building against pandemic restrictions was focused on keeping the peace and preventing it from escalating.

Up until that point, the protesters had been allowed to occupy streets near the provincial legislature. 

Smyth said the federal government's enactment of the Emergencies Act and the end of the three-week occupation in downtown Ottawa played a role in the Winnipeg Police Service's decision to tell the protesters it was time to go. Police also felt negotiations with protest organizers had reached an impasse, he said.

"Those things … coming in together kind of gave us our signal to put an end to it."

Last week, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said he was glad to see the protest come to a quiet conclusion, noting the co-operation and mutual respect between police and protesters.

But he also said police will need to rebuild trust with residents who were negatively affected by a protest that was allowed to last that long, adding that some of the comments the Winnipeg Police Service made regarding the protesters "raised a lot of questions for Winnipeggers."

WATCH | Mayor Brian Bowman on lengthy anti-restrictions protest:

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman on police response to convoy protest

9 months ago
Duration 1:08
Winnipeg's mayor says he thinks the police will need to work on their relationships with citizens who were negatively affected by a convoy protest in the city that was allowed to last for nearly three weeks.

Those comments included ones made last week by Winnipeg police Const. Rob Carver, who said at a Feb. 23 news conference that officers told him people gathered near the legislature were "one of the most reasonable and most welcoming group[s] of protesters they've ever encountered."

Bowman responded at a news conference the following day, saying he didn't think it was "reasonable or respectful for Winnipeggers to occupy our streets for three weeks in contravention of numerous laws."

Smyth said the police response to this protest was consistent with the service's approach to others in the past.

He added that he recognized that the convoy protest was "hugely unpopular," but that police need to remain impartial. 

"It's a significant number of people [at the protest], but it's a small minority of people relative to the rest of the city, the rest of the country. So … this clearly is not a popular cause," he said.

"Nonetheless, people still have the right to assemble and have their voice heard, and that's what we tried to facilitate as peacefully as we could."

WATCH | Police chief explains approach to convoy protest: 

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth defends service's response to pandemic restrictions protest

9 months ago
Duration 1:55
Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth says the way his service handled the anti-restrictions protest near the Manitoba Legislative Building last month was consistent with the way it has handled past protests.

Rebuilding trust 

However, the co-chair of the Police Accountability Coalition questioned whether the police service's approach would have been the same if the convoy had been made up of a different demographic. 

Abdikheir Ahmed, who has worked with Winnipeg police to build relationships with newcomers for years, pointed out that most of the protesters were white and were demonstrating in an area where many low-income people of colour live. 

He thinks the police were too lenient with the protesters given how much they disrupted peoples' lives in the downtown area.

"It's not what we expect from the police," he said.

Now, the Winnipeg Police Service has a long way to go to rebuild public trust following its handling of the convoy, Ahmed said.

"The demographics of this city is changing. It's high time that the police look inward and think about how they can represent the demographics of this city."

Smyth said public trust is important to the service, and it's an ongoing discussion.
"I think we'll always experience ebbs and flows and clearly, you know, we're in ebb right now," he said.

"But the work doesn't stop and we continue to work in the community and try to establish those relationships with the community."

Smyth will discuss the protests, among other topics, at a Winnipeg Police Board meeting on Friday.

Concerns about policing in Canada

While police do have an obligation to keep the peace and maintain public order, they also have a responsibility to meet the needs of residents — which may not have happened in this situation, said Christian Leuprecht, a professor and security expert at the Royal Military College and Queen's University.

"The mayor is quite right, that in terms of community police relations, either there are tensions that police need to address and/or there are more systemic issues to ensure that police ultimately have the full trust and support of the community that they serve," he said. 

But Leuprecht said he also thinks the police chief was in a very difficult position in this situation. 

"He has to have the backs of his members, who know that they will be criticized by the public, by the media, possibly by politicians. On the other hand, the chief is the one that has to ensure adequate and effective policing," he said. 

Nevertheless, Leuprecht says he thinks what unfolded in Ottawa and in other parts of the country has raised serious questions about the efficacy of policing in Canada.

"For almost three weeks [in Ottawa], there was essentially an absence of the rule of law and of the state, because it appeared that our law enforcement agencies were unprepared and did not have the ability to respond in the way that Canadians would have expected them to be able to," he said.

"And I think it should be a wake-up call that we have been rather naive in this country and that perhaps the critics have more of a point than much of the majority of Canadians have given them credit [for]."

WATCH | Full interview with Chief Danny Smyth: 

Full interview with Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth

9 months ago
Duration 13:50
CBC's Sam Samson interviews Chief Danny Smyth about the Winnipeg Police Service's response to the recent convoy protests and the public's perception of his officers.

With files from Sam Samson and Marcy Markusa