Ottawa police hire elite crisis-management firm to handle protest messaging

Chief Peter Sloly's office has hired Navigator — an elite and expensive crisis management firm — to manage communications around the anti-vaccine mandate protest on Parliament Hill.

Navigator, with tagline 'When you can't afford to lose,' is working on Ottawa police communications

The Ottawa Police Service has hired a high-profile crisis communication firm to help Chief Peter Sloly and the service manage the messaging around the ongoing demonstration. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

In the moments before the Ottawa police's Friday morning briefing on the ongoing anti-vaccine mandate protest on Parliament Hill, officers — both in uniform and plain clothes — and media alike awaited the arrival of the chief and deputy chiefs.

Meanwhile, a few folks were passing around a news release on tougher police measures coming in the days ahead, including one man who was not with the police services, but with the chief's office, CBC was told.

That man was Matthew Barnes, a senior consultant for Navigator — an elite and expensive crisis management firm.

Police chief Peter Sloly's office confirmed by email that Navigator was hired last weekend to "assist the Ottawa Police Service and Ottawa Police Services Board with communication/community engagement support on the first weekend of the demonstrations."

The full costs of the services aren't known yet, but according to the statement, taxpayers are paying Navigator on what's being described as a "fee-for-service basis," with "an upside limit" of $50,000 to $75,000.

There was no competitive bid for the communications work because, according to police, the contract is within the service's sole-source guidelines for special events.

Whether the strategy is working is unclear.

According to CBC sources, Sloly didn't strictly follow his speaking notes during Wednesday's news conference, when he suggested that it might be necessary to call in the military to cover the protest, and that policing alone may not be enough to bring the demonstrations to an end.

Police did not comment on whether Sloly went off-script on Wednesday.

Matthew Barnes is a senior consultant for Navigator. (Navigator)

'High-stakes communications strategist'

With the tagline, "When you can't afford to lose," Navigator describes itself as "Canada's leading high-stakes strategic advisory and communications firm."

It was founded more than 20 years ago and its executive chairman, Jaime Watt, was a Progressive Conservative strategist who worked with former premier Mike Harris, helping him launch his "Common Sense Revolution." He's represented high-profile clients — including, briefly, former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi.

According to the bio on the company's website, Watt is "widely regarded as Canada's leading high stakes communications strategist, he is a trusted advisor to boards of directors, business and professional leaders as well as political leaders at all three levels of government across Canada."

Navigator opened an office in Ottawa last March, according to a news release at the time, led by Graham Fox and Barnes.

Before joining Navigator, Barnes was a senior communications manager to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and worked for her predecessor Bill Morneau.

Fox was formerly the CEO of think tank Institute for Research on Public Policy, and previously worked in government relations for the clients of law firm Fraser Milner Casgrain (now Dentons).