OPP intelligence chief reported 'ethical' qualms about calls for background checks on some convoy protesters

The head of the OPP's intelligence bureau said he was concerned his officers were asked to investigate individuals and groups protesting government policies during the convoy protest – even though there was no indication that they were planning criminal activity.

'The potential 'targets' are not engaged in criminal activity' — OPP Supt. Pat Morris

A protester and trucks.
A woman poses for a photo in front of trucks taking part in a convoy to protest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine mandates for cross-border truck drivers on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on January 28, 2022. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

The head of the Ontario Provincial Police intelligence bureau said he had "professional and ethical" concerns about requests he was getting from police and political leaders for background checks on participants in last winter's convoy protest who had not engaged in illegal activity.

In documents tabled with the public inquiry studying the federal government's handling of the convoy protest, Supt. Pat Morris, commander of the OPP intelligence bureau, pushed back at what he described as requests for background checks that fell outside his bureau's legal mandate.

"On the ethical front, several requests do not relate to the parameters that the state/police should consider in intelligence operations," Morris wrote in a memo to OPP Deputy Commissioner Chuck Cox on Feb. 2.

"The potential 'targets' are not engaged in criminal activity nor do we have reasonable grounds to believe that they will be. They may oppose government policy and engage in protest."

'Discomfort to the status quo'

Morris said in the documents he had professional concerns about the number of different people and government departments that were asking his section to dig into the backgrounds of convoy protesters.

"There appears to be an incredibly heightened appetite for any/all information on entities that cause discomfort to the status quo — be they companies, school boards, government authorities or political leaders." Morris wrote. "And this appetite is being articulated in irresponsible ways — attaching urgency to requests."

As the convoy protest paralyzed downtown Ottawa and blocked border crossings to the U.S. last winter, much of the intelligence that informed the response by police and governments was coming from the OPP's Provincial Operations Intelligence Bureau (POIB), which had been monitoring the people and groups behind protests such as Shut Down Canada since late 2019 as part of the Hendon Project.

The Hendon Project reports warned in mid-January that the convoy protest that ended up tying downtown Ottawa in knots for three weeks could end up being larger and more durable than anyone was expecting at the time.

In the course of its work on the convoy protest, the POIB produced 87 "person of interest profiles," according to a list provided to the inquiry.

Most of those reports have been heavily redacted before being released by the inquiry. They include information gleaned from open sources such as social media, criminal record checks, photos, biometric data such as height and weight, home addresses, phone numbers, employers, names of spouses, information on firearm ownership, driving records, address history and photos of vehicles and homes.

A police officer in uniform sits in a chair, looking ahead.
Supt. Pat Morris of the OPP waits to appear as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa on Oct. 19, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Testifying before the inquiry on Oct, 19, Morris said his section also conducted surveillance and covert operations on the convoy protest as part of its intelligence gathering.

In his Feb. 2 memo to Deputy Commissioner Cox, which came after the first weekend of the convoy protest in Ottawa, Morris said requests for POIB intelligence were on the rise.

"POIB is increasingly receiving requests for information, intelligence, open source scrapes, background checks etc. on a wide array of social actors," Morris wrote.

"Many of these entities are social movements that have perspectives that diverge from the mainstream — they may not be engaged in criminal activity, nor do we have grounds to believe or suspect that they are. These requests are emanating from many clients internal and external to the OPP at an escalating rate — and with great urgency."

In the memo, Morris said he was trying to control the stream of information requests.

"I have acted to prevent/slow down these requests and/or the responses to them," he wrote. "Often, in times of social turmoil, anxiety breeds fear and demands for information. I am reminded, and cognizant, of the mass demand for information on 'terrorists' that succeeded 9/11."

No profiles without a public safety threat: Morris

Morris's memo also suggests that some of the requests for background on protesters were coming from political "leaders."

"Perhaps my biggest concern is police leaders and municipal, provincial and national government leaders demanding/requesting information to satisfy a request without understanding the wherefore or the why," he wrote.

In his testimony before the inquiry, Morris said he had a hard-and-fast rule for intelligence gathering related to protests.

"We don't do POI, person of interest profiles, unless we have reasonable grounds to suspect, or reasonable grounds to believe, that those individuals will be engaged in criminal activity or illegal activity that will present a public safety risk," Morris told the inquiry.

"I believe that the public expects people like me in my position to consider those things in the course of my duties."

On Feb. 22, two days after a massive police operation cleared protesters from downtown Ottawa, Morris voiced concerns about how the protesters were being portrayed by some.

Police move in to clear downtown Ottawa near Parliament hill of protesters after weeks of demonstrations on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. The public inquiry investigating the federal government's unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act in February begins today in downtown Ottawa.
Police move in to clear downtown Ottawa near Parliament hill of protesters after weeks of demonstrations on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

"It is not an 'extremist' movement," Morris wrote in a separate memo to Cox. "It is not comprised of Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremists (IMVE's). The actual leaders are not violent extremists with histories of violent criminal acts — although events do attract unpredictable and extreme elements. The absolute lack of criminal activity across Canada and the minimal violent crime throughout the event illustrate this.

"But now the public discourse is dominated by political figures and the media — and the commentary is providing a very different picture than what law enforcement collectively gathered. It is painting a different picture — it speaks to extremism, it offers parallels to terrorism, it speaks of sedition."

Morris called for the OPP to continue gathering information and monitoring for criminal activity.

Maintaining the 'guardrails'

Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation who specializes in security and intelligence, said there are limits to the OPP's legal mandate for collecting intelligence. He said police must have reasonable grounds to believe that a person or group might be engaged in criminal activity before they start digging into someone.

Wark said Morris clearly was trying to maintain the "lawful guardrails" and prevent the improper use of person of interest profiles.

"I think his concern was that others, who didn't understand anything about intelligence and didn't know how these person of interest profiles were being put together and how they might be used, didn't get that," he said.

"And so he was really trying to hold the gate against improper use of these person of interest profiles and clearly there was a flood of demand for them that, as far as he was concerned, went beyond where it should have gone."

Wark said it was legitimate for the OPP to gather background on convoy organizers to better understand them and decide whether they posed a risk to public safety or national security.

"But to spread the boundaries of that effort much beyond convoy organizers, I think was the thing that really was concerning to Pat Morris," he said.

Morris declined an interview request from CBC News, saying he couldn't talk about matters that are before the inquiry.


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.


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