Politics

Minister Blair 'embarrassed' by lack of police response to convoy protests, evidence shows

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair was “embarrassed” by the police response to the convoy protests in Ottawa last winter, evidence presented at the inquiry probing the government’s use of the emergency powers shows.

Texts between Blair, chief of staff, say he was concerned government looked 'weak and ineffective'

President of the King's Privy Council for Canada and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair was "embarrassed" by the police response to the convoy protests in Ottawa last winter, evidence presented at the inquiry probing the government's use of the emergency powers shows.

The text messages between Blair and his chief of staff were entered into evidence on Monday and also show the former Toronto police chief was concerned that the federal government looked "weak" due to the lack of action.

"I am embarrassed for my former profession. And worried for my government which is being made to look weak and ineffective," Blair said in a text message.

"I can't believe that I'm hoping [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford will save us."

Text messages between Blair and his chief of staff were entered into evidence at the Emergencies Act inquiry on Monday. (Public Order Emergency Commission exhibit)

Blair said Monday during his testimony that the text was "intemperate," but demonstrated his concerns about the protests expanding in front of Parliament Hill.

"Trust and confidence in the police is absolutely essential for them to do their job," Blair said. "I was very concerned about the impact that the apparent ineffectiveness of the police to deal with this was [having on] the public's confidence."

Blair said when it came to whose responsibility it was to address the protests in Ottawa from a policing standpoint, the public didn't differentiate between levels of government, though he said it ultimately was the province's responsibility.

The Ontario government declared a state of emergency on Feb. 11, weeks after the protests had arrived in Ottawa, which Blair said he was "hoping" for.

Disputes between Ontario and the federal government

In the past few weeks the commission has heard of friction between the Ontario and federal governments over how to address the protests in Ottawa and the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont.

The Emergencies Act is only supposed to be invoked when — according to the wording of the law itself — a national emergency "cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada."

The inquiry heard that during a Feb. 8 private call with then-Ottawa mayor Jim Watson, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Ontario Premier Doug Ford of hiding from his responsibilities during the convoy protests.

"Doug Ford has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons, as you highlighted," Trudeau said, according to a readout of the call, which is not an exact transcript of the conversation.

"Important we don't let them get away from that."

A few weeks later, the commission heard from a senior Ontario government bureaucrat who alleged the federal government was trying to force the province to take the lead on ending the blockades.

Mario Di Tommaso, Ontario's deputy solicitor general, told the inquiry about a meeting during which Jody Thomas, the prime minister's national security adviser, asked whether the provincial government would take a more active role in the Ottawa protests if they were happening in Kingston, Ont.

"This question was all about, from my perception, the federal government wanting to wash its hands of this entire thing," Di Tommaso said.

Ford has said he supported the federal government's decision to invoke the Act.

WATCH | Canada's top spy believed convoy protests posed security threat: 

Head of CSIS, cabinet minister give rationale for use of Emergencies Act

14 days ago
Duration 2:38
The first of several senior cabinet ministers has now given his rationale for using the Emergencies Act to the public inquiry into the decision, while head of Canada’s spy agency testified that he recommended the government invoke the serious legislation to deal with last winter’s convoy protest in Ottawa.

The first two weeks of the commission focused on the police response to the protest. Multiple officers with the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) described chaos and confusion in Ottawa after protesters arrived the first weekend and parked big rigs and other vehicles on downtown streets.

Despite receiving several early warnings, Peter Sloly —  who was OPS chief during the protests — told the commission that even in "hindsight," he doesn't think the intelligence he was getting before the protest rolled into town suggested that protesters would dig in and remain.

The commission has heard that OPP sent the Ottawa police intelligence reports warning of "fringe ideologies" active within the protest movement, and alerting the OPS that organizers did not have an exit strategy to end the protest.

Still, the Ottawa police planned for the protesters to stay for only one weekend, the commission heard. They stayed for nearly a month.

Both OPP and RCMP officials have testified that they had no idea how OPS planned to end the demonstrations.

Exchange between Blair, Alberta minister

This is not the first time Blair's text messages have been raised during the inquiry. 

Text messages entered into evidence earlier this month showed a testy exchange between Blair and Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver.

At the time, the province was struggling with a blockade near a southern Alberta village. People protesting COVID-19 restrictions used large trucks and other vehicles to block commercial traffic to and from the U.S. at Coutts between Jan. 29 and Feb. 14.

About a week into the blockade, Alberta turned to Ottawa to ask about the possibility of using Canadian Armed Forces tow trucks to remove the blockade vehicles after local tow operators rejected RCMP requests.

Some of Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver's texts were made public as part of the Emergencies Act inquiry. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

In a Feb. 5 letter to the federal government, McIver said the RCMP had "exhausted all local and regional options to alleviate the week-long service disruptions."

In a Feb. 8 text, Blair told McIver he had conveyed his message to Defence Minister Anita Anand.

"Any update?" McIver said in a text to Blair two days later.

After 11 days of silence, McIver followed up that message with another one: "Still no answer." Blair then responded.

"You may be aware that we invoked the [Emergencies] Act," Blair told McIver in a text exchange. "Which addressed the tow truck issue quite effectively."

McIver said he was "disappointed" with the response.

"We received no help until after the Coutts issue was resolved and you know that," the provincial minister wrote in a text to Blair. "Disappointed to hear you say otherwise."

Blair was the first of a number of cabinet ministers expected to testify at the commission this week.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Major

CBC Journalist

Darren Major is a senior writer for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He can be reached via email darren.major@cbc.ca or by tweeting him @DMajJourno.

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