Downtown residents still 'traumatized' by convoy, lawyer tells commission
Public commission into invocation of Emergencies Act gets under way in Ottawa
People who lived through last winter's convoy protest and occupation of downtown Ottawa remain "traumatized" by the experience, a lawyer representing residents and business groups told the public commission probing the federal government's unprecedented use of emergency powers to clear the capital.
- Battle lines are drawn as the Emergencies Act inquiry gets underway in Ottawa
- 65 witnesses set to testify at inquiry into use of Emergencies Act
Paul Champ made the comment during introductory remarks on the opening day of the Public Order Emergency Commission, kicking off six weeks of highly anticipated hearings into the events of January and February. Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Paul Rouleau is presiding over the commission.
Many people in Ottawa felt like they were prisoners in their own home.- Paul Champ, lawyer
"The people in Ottawa are still traumatized, commissioner. They're bewildered, they're upset, and I can say, commissioner, these 30 days that you have, we could have residents line up every day to testify, to tell you their stories."
Champ described an atmosphere of chaos and danger during the three weeks that the protesters occupied several blocks of the city's downtown, including Wellington Street.
He reminded the commission that Ottawa's downtown core is home to 15,000 people who live, work and shop there.
"People see the Parliament Buildings and they think this is all government and so forth in downtown Ottawa, but there are people, there are children, there are schools — there's a public elementary school that's about six blocks from here — and the impact on Ottawa for those three weeks of harassment, street blockages, ear-splitting air and train horns, and general lawlessness was unprecedented," Champ said.
Residents felt 'abandoned'
Champ described a dangerous mix of carelessly stored gas cans and propane tanks, and fireworks "pinging" off buildings. During that time, vulnerable residents were denied access to public transit and other basic city services, while shops, restaurants and even the Rideau Centre were forced to close their doors.
"Many people in Ottawa felt like they were prisoners in their own home, and they felt abandoned and they felt unsafe," Champ said.
Testimony will begin Friday morning with Ottawa-based lawyer Victoria De La Ronde and Zexi Li, the downtown resident who helped secure an injunction against the protesters. It will continue with Nathalie Carrier, executive director of the Vanier BIA, and Kevin McHale, executive director of the Sparks Street BIA, who are expected to describe the impact of the protests on downtown businesses.
The hearings are scheduled to continue Friday afternoon with testimony from two Ottawa city councillors, Catherine McKenney and Mathieu Fleury.
Their testimony is expected to conflict with that of other witnesses, including protesters, who argue there was insufficient justification to invoke the Emergencies Act.
Situation downtown 'became volatile'
On Thursday, the commission also heard introductory remarks from David Migicovsky, counsel for the Ottawa Police Service, who echoed some of Champ's comments.
"The protest became dangerous and the situation became volatile. This was an unprecedented situation, and it required an unprecedented response by the Ottawa Police Service," he said.
Migicovsky told the commission that protests are "a fact of life" in the nation's capital, and police have "a well-established process" for dealing with them, including communicating with protest organizers.
"What you will hear is that this protest was unique in Canadian history," Migicovsky told the commission. "The police had little time to prepare. The genesis of the protest had only begun a couple weeks before it arrived in town, and it gained momentum with time."
Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the protesters joined the convoy just prior to its arrival in Ottawa, Migicovsky said, so the anticipated number of participants was "difficult to impossible to gauge." By the time the main convoy reached the city, it was 40 kilometres long and contained thousands of vehicles, he said.
"That could not have been predicted," Migicovsky said
Nor were police adequately prepared for a prolonged occupation, or its impact on downtown residents, he said.
"What none of the intelligence predicted in the very brief period of time prior to the convoy's arrival was the level of community violence and social trauma that was inflicted upon the city and its residents."
Ex-chief to testify
A lawyer representing former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly, who resigned at the height of the protest, agreed with Migicovsky's assessment that the intelligence about "what was coming Ottawa's way" was lacking.
Sloly, who spoke to a separate parliamentary committee last week, will offer the commission 11 recommendations to prevent a similar incident when he testifies, Tom Curry told the commission. Sloly could appear before the commission as early as next week.
Champ said the coalition of residents and business groups he's representing doesn't plan to take a position on the government's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.
"But make no mistake, it was a crisis in downtown Ottawa. There was disorder, there was chaos," he said.
"It's going to take a while for this city to heal internally."