After failing to heed intelligence, Ottawa police were left 'floundering,' Emergencies Act inquiry hears

One of the top officers at the Ottawa Police Service says the force should have paid closer attention to intelligence that suggested the Freedom Convoy protesters planned to stay past two days — and city police were left "floundering" after the first weekend.

OPP officer describes dysfunction within Ottawa police

Former police chief blamed for poor planning for convoy protest

11 months ago
Duration 1:53
The inquiry into the use of the federal Emergencies Act to clear Ottawa's streets of protesters earlier this year heard from law enforcement officers Thursday, who blamed former Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly for poor co-operation with other police forces, poor planning and disregarding intelligence.

One of the top officers at the Ottawa Police Service says the force should have paid closer attention to intelligence that suggested the Freedom Convoy protesters planned to stay past two days — and city police were left "floundering" after the first weekend.

"There was a failure to appreciate," Patricia Ferguson, acting deputy chief of the Ottawa Police Service (OPS), told the Public Order Emergency Commission on Thursday.

A superintendent from another police service said the Ottawa police lost control almost as soon as the protesters and their trucks rolled into town.

Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Supt. Craig Abrams said he was told that the situation in the national capital by the first Saturday of the protest was "dysfunctional."

The Public Order Emergency Commission is working to determine whether the federal government's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to evict the protesters was justified.

One of the questions the public inquiry has been digging into is whether Ottawa police shrugged off signs that the protesters planned to entrench themselves.

On Wednesday, the inquiry heard that the OPP intelligence bureau had warned that a mass anti-government protest could be headed to Ottawa in early January.

Supt. Pat Morris, who heads the OPP's Provincial Operations Intelligence Bureau, testified that by Jan. 20 — more than a week before the Freedom Convoy protests began — the OPP believed the protest would be "a long-term event."

Evidence presented at the commission also showed that police and city officials had received a warning from the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association that someone from the Canada United Truckers Convoy had reached out looking to book hotel rooms for at least 30 days.

WATCH | Ottawa police should have 'given more credibility' to information on convoy protest plans:

Ottawa police acting deputy chief says Ottawa police should have 'given more credibility' to information on convoy protest plans

11 months ago
Duration 0:20
Patricia Ferguson explains that Ottawa police should have taken the information they had around how long the protestors planned to stay in the city more seriously.

An email entered into evidence Thursday showed that even some within the Ottawa Police had a sense that the convoy headed to Ottawa was unlike other protests.

"The goal of the convoy is to remain in Ottawa until the restrictions are repealed," said one email, dated Jan. 21, from the force's events planning unit.

That email also said the protesters were raising large amounts of money through their GoFundMe page.

But Ferguson said Ottawa police acted under the assumption that the crowds would clear out after the first weekend.

Ontario Provincial Police director Craig Abrams appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"We weighed the information and the intelligence we had and that was the plan was developed based on what our best assessment of that was," she said.

No new plan after first weekend 

Commission lawyer Frank Au asked Ferguson what she would have done differently leading up to the first weekend "in hindsight."

"I suppose we would have given more credibility to the information and intelligence telling us there was a faction that were planning on staying for a much longer period of time," Ferguson replied.

Under cross examination, Chris Diana, a lawyer for the OPP, he asked Ferguson about reports dubbed "Project Hendon" that had been passed on to Ottawa police and then-OPS chief Peter Sloly.

WATCH |  OPP Superintendent describes police officers yelling 'profanities' at each other during convoy protest:

OPP Superintendent Craig Abrams describes police officers yelling 'profanities' at each other during convoy protest

11 months ago
Duration 0:54
Abrams says a report he received described police officers yelling profanities at each other and signs that their leaders had lost control.

The reports' early assessment that the occupation would last a while was based on "the fact that there was no exit strategy" and that the protesters' main demand — ending COVID-19 mandates — "could not be met," according to Morris's testimony Wednesday.

He said Project Hendon was the name given by the OPP to its ongoing investigation of protests presenting reasonable grounds to suspect illegal activity or threats to public safety.

Police continue to push back protesters in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, towing away trucks, arresting dozens of protesters to retake control of the streets in front of the country's Parliament buildings. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ferguson said that while she received a report in late January, she did not become aware of Project Hendon until early February. 

"In my position as a strategic kind of adviser in this role, I was not reading those reports, per se," said Ferguson.

Ferguson, who was in charge of community policing at the time of the protests, said the OPS's original contingency plan only extended to noon on Monday, Jan. 31.

By then, it became clear to the force that protesters would not be moving of their own volition . 

"We had been talking about demobilization plan up until that point, and clearly that was not the plan that was going to be required," Ferguson said Thursday.

OPP assumed Ottawa had a plan

Abrams, who is in charge of OPP operations for the eastern region of the province, testified Thursday that he learned on Jan. 27 that Ottawa police planned to let 3,000 vehicles into the city.

According to documents tabled with the commission, Abrams said Ottawa police told him that vehicles would be parking on three of the four lanes on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill and that Freedom Convoy organizers had agreed to keep a single lane open.

"It wasn't my place to question if they were ready," he testified. "I had to assume they had a solid plan."

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

According to a summary of an interview he gave to the commission this summer, Abrams felt by Jan. 29 that "OPS could not handle the convoy participants and that the OPS was in a state of confusion."

Abrams was being told that officers in the National Capital Region Command Centre "were in crisis mode, that they were cursing and swearing, and that they were yelling orders at each other and partner agencies," said the document.

"Superintendent Abrams understood that OPS was clearly struggling to determine what its operational plan was."

We lost time, says Ferguson

Ferguson said Ottawa police still didn't have a new plan by Feb. 4, a week after protesters and their vehicles had first rolled into the city, because the force was "putting out fires" and dealing with staffing.

"We had a period after that first weekend where I say we were orienting ourselves, I think we were floundering a little bit in terms of our staffing, in terms of our ability to really take stock of what was going on and then move forward and come up with a plan to get out of it," she said.

"We lost some time there."

WATCH | Ottawa police acting deputy chief questioned about truck convoy response:

Ottawa police acting deputy chief questioned about truck convoy response

11 months ago
Duration 1:01
Patricia Ferguson says Ottawa police should have alerted the public and businesses that the truck convoy demonstrations could last beyond a weekend.

Ferguson said a plan was not put on paper until Feb. 9, more than a week after the protesters arrived.

By that point, the atmosphere at police headquarters had become tense.

According to Ferguson's handwritten notes, Sloly said during a meeting that if anyone undermined the plan, he would "crush them."

"I was aghast," she testified.

Ferguson said that leading up to the first weekend of the protest, OPS staffing was hindered by sickness and it was already difficult to fill shifts.

"I would describe us as being on our knees," said Ferguson. "Staffing was, I would say, our number one Achilles heel in all of this."

OPS saw an 'increase in violence'

On Wednesday, Morris of the OPP testified that, leading up to the start of the Ottawa protests, there were no credible reports of threats associated with the convoy.

"Everybody was asking about extremism. We weren't seeing much evidence of it," he told the inquiry. 

Patricia Ferguson of the Ottawa Police Service arrives to appear as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa, on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

But once the protest landed in Ottawa, Ferguson said, city police did witness a rise in violence.

"We did see some increase in violence and acts of violence as a result of the protest in town," she said while being questioned by Brendan Miller, the lawyer for the convoy organizers.

An Ottawa police operational report from Feb. 9 said a towing trucking company reported receiving hundreds of calls, including death threats.

"City employees in particular have been subject to intimidation and rock-throwing when left alone in vehicles," said the report.

The Public Order Emergency Commission, lead by Commissioner Paul Rouleau, is meeting for six weeks to hear from more than 60 witnesses and examine thousands of pages of documents as it studies the federal government's invocation of the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.

Invoking the act gave authorities new powers allowing them to freeze the finances of those connected to blockades and protests, ban travel to protest zones, prohibit people from bringing minors to unlawful assemblies and commandeer tow trucks.

The act requires that after it is invoked, an inquiry must be struck table a final report to Parliament.

That report is due in February. 


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

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