Politics

Expanding parliamentary precinct would improve safety, police tell MPs

Police services told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that expanding the footprint of the parliamentary precinct would improve safety and allow police to do their jobs better, but any move to change how Parliament Hill is policed must clarify police jurisdiction.

Tory MPs challenge police chiefs who said convoy protest was an 'occupation' and residents were 'terrorized'

Protesters participating in a cross-country truck convoy protesting measures taken by authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 and vaccine mandates walk near Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Police services told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that expanding the footprint of the parliamentary precinct would improve safety and allow them to do their jobs better, but any move to change how Parliament Hill is policed must clarify police jurisdiction.

MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee heard from the OPP, the RCMP, Ottawa Police and Gatineau police on the question of whether sections of Wellington St. and Sparks St. should fall under the operational security of the parliamentary precinct.

Ottawa Police interim chief Steve Bell was asked if expanding the parliamentary precinct to Wellington Street and shutting it down to vehicle traffic would improve safety. "It enhances the security of any sort of risk or threat that could be borne by vehicles, so I would say yes," he said.

RCMP Deputy Commissioner Michael Duheme told MPs that allowing trucks and other vehicles to park outside the Prime Minister's Office on Wellington St. created a security risk for the prime minister during the trucker convoy protest.

Parliament Hill is protected by the Parliamentary Protection Service, PPS, which is separate from the RCMP but is directed by one of its commanders. Wellington St. falls under the jurisdiction of the Ottawa Police Service, while the RCMP traverse both areas in their work providing protection for ministers and the prime minister.

Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull asked Duheme if expanding the parliamentary precinct across Wellington and bringing it under the PPS would help the RCMP in its protective role.

"I look forward to the review of the committee, but I do believe that if you expand it, it will have an impact on the main buildings on Wellington St. that we attend on a regular basis with the prime minister," Duheme said.

Bell said that even if Wellington and Sparks were brought under PPS jurisdiction, Ottawa Police would maintain some responsibilities in the expanded area.

"We would still remain police of jurisdiction, we would still be responsive to any type of Criminal Code incident," Bell said. "It would continue to need to be a partnership between ourselves and PPS as we moved ahead."

Jurisdictional clarity sought

The challenges of having several police forces working together in the same area, and the need to sort out who is responsible for what, was raised by both police and government ministers at the committee meeting Tuesday. 

Bell said any changes to law enforcement responsibilities in Ottawa must define "who will do what and where, what are the exact boundaries and what happens when an incident event crosses over these boundaries."

"If we're going to effectively respond to complex shifting events, jurisdictional boundaries, responsibilities and collaborative strategies will have to be clearly spelled out," he said. 

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Public Services and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi, who is overseeing the Block 2 redevelopment project opposite Parliament Hill, also spoke to the committee Tuesday. 

A protester yells "hold the line" while being taken away under arrest as police put an end to an anti-vaccine mandate demonstration that turned into an occupation in downtown Ottawa. Interim Ottawa Police Chief told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that 280 arrests were made during the occupation. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Tassi said the recent trucker protest illustrated the challenges that come with having multiple police forces with responsibilities in the same area — something she said "undermined a coordinated and coherent" police response during the protest's occupation of the downtown.

"Within the next decade, approximately 50 per cent of all parliamentary offices will be located on the other side of Wellington St., meaning Wellington will no longer serve as the border for Parliament, but instead run right through its core," she said.

That $430 million Block 2 redevelopment will encompass 11 buildings and 150 offices and bring courtyards, atriums and a new public square to downtown Ottawa.

Tassi said that reconsidering the security of the parliamentary precinct during the redevelopment provides an opportunity to work out issues of "governance more broadly."

Conservatives challenge characterization of protest

Conservative MPs on the committee challenged police descriptions of the trucker protest as an "occupation" and the description of protesters as having "terrorized" Ottawa residents during the month-long episode. 

Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer challenged Duheme and Bell directly, saying that many in the media and in politics used the term "occupation" to describe the protest when it really wasn't an occupation.

"Are you aware of any parliamentary buildings that were occupied by protesters?" Scheer asked. 

Duheme said he was not.

"Are you aware of any buildings near the parliamentary precinct that were occupied, where protesters entered buildings and occupied them?" Scheer asked Chief Bell. 

"Specifically entering buildings? No that wasn't part of what we saw," Bell responded. "What we did see was we actually saw our streets occupied with trucks, with vehicles, with people that were terrorizing our community. 

"That's what we saw, that's the reality. I think it's important that we try not to minimize the impact on our community and on our city."

Ottawa residents fed up with the lawlessness of the convoy protesters held a counter protest in Ottawa on Feb. 13, preventing trucker convoy participants from accessing Parliament Hill. (The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

Conservative MP Brad Vis later challenged Bell on his use of the word "terrorize" and asked him if any protesters were arrested and charged with terrorism-related offences.

Bell said that no terrorism charges were laid but the Ottawa Police Service had its hands full dealing with convoy protesters engaged in acts of alleged criminality.

"What I can say is that during the convoy, during the occupation, we received 2,200 calls for service, which resulted in 280 arrests from 410 different Criminal Code investigations, with 118 people charged and 466 criminal charges laid," he said.

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