Ottawa police chief lauds protest response despite criticism
Chief Peter Sloly says there have been no deaths, riots or injuries because of protest
Despite growing criticism from residents and academics, Ottawa's police chief has praised the service's response to a protest he called "unique in nature, massive in scale, polarizing in context and dangerous in literally every other aspect of the event itself."
The protest affiliated with the truck convoy continues for a fifth day in the city's downtown. It began with thousands of protesters, some of whom arrived on Friday, while the numbers have steadily shrunk since the largest gathering on Saturday — the police estimate now ranges from 5,000 to 18,000 — and the sound of honking has continued in the downtown core.
The protests centre around the small percentage of truckers who don't want to get the two COVID-19 vaccine doses now required to cross the Canada-U.S. border and people who want all COVID-19 rules withdrawn and government leaders to resign.
During a news conference Monday, Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly called the force's response, which has largely focused on de-escalation tactics, a success.
His rationale centred around the fact nobody has been injured and there were no riots from a crowd that came to the city with fire in their bellies.
"We've seen it as much as an hour ago online, as the demonstration goes into its full fifth day, clear statements and incitements to riotous behaviour, injury, the bringing of arms and weapons into the National Capital Region," Sloly said, crediting his officers for the relative calm in the downtown core.
"They have been an incredible group of individuals who kept this city safe during a situation that could have become riotous, it could have led to significant and severe injuries, and it could have led to the loss of lives."
Protests 'unsettling and scary'
Aside from honking and yelling, Sloly has said the protests have been mainly peaceful — but downtown residents disagree.
Michaela Bax-Leaney placed a sign on her balcony over the weekend expressing support for COVID-19 vaccines. She said that sign was knocked down by a protester, then someone later climbed the tree next to her balcony and tore it down again.
"That was very unsettling and scary," Bax-Leaney said. "To have someone literally feet away, very angry and upset scaling our balcony."
We are immensely proud of our police members and partners who have worked tirelessly to plan for and manage this demonstration over the past few days under difficult circumstances of extreme cold temperatures and difficult and challenging treatment from some demonstrators.—@OttawaPolice
There have been several protesters accused of violence, harassment, racism and homophobia since Friday. Ottawa paramedics have also confirmed rocks and verbal abuse were hurled at an ambulance and paramedics this weekend.
Police say several investigations are ongoing into protest-related incidents.
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Criminology professor Jeffrey Monaghan says he is confused by the response from the Ottawa Police Service, which he acknowledged has a lot of experience dealing with public demonstrations in Canada's capital.
"What we're seeing now is a lot of disorganization, and it's somewhat surprising," said Monaghan, who teaches at Carleton University.
Police had advance notice to prepare for protesters, but the professor says the rules for the protest remain unclear.
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The lack of enforcement is likely in part because of the logistical challenges caused by the number of trucks involved, Monaghan said, but from an outsider's perspective it seems police are dealing with protesters in a different way than past demonstrations.
Response different this time around
"On a very general level, there's a really big contrast between this protest and most protests in Ottawa," Monaghan said.
In 2020, police removed protesters and charged 12 people with mischief after 36 hours of demonstration in support of Black and Indigenous lives at a main Ottawa intersection.
At the time, police said the demonstration had disrupted traffic and blocked an important route for emergency responders causing "multiple safety issues."
On Monday, Sloly also said that protest was easier to remove because it was not as large as the current demonstration, while it also did not feature very large vehicles.
Still, Monaghan calls the different treatment "a terrible look" for police, who have been criticized for being discriminatory to Black and Indigenous people.
"Treating, you know, a largely white group with really soft hands doesn't help any of that stuff," he said.
'All options remain on the table'
Former Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau said the force is making decisions "based on history and a track record of the best approach in managing demonstrations."
Harm reduction has been the main driver, he said, and eventually police will negotiate with organizers to end the demonstration.
If a number of people refuse to leave, that's when police will need to consider other options, Bordeleau said.
Sloly continues to say all options are on the table including negotiation and enforcement.