Politics

Payment plea for Tamil protest costs ignored

The Public Safety Ministry has yet to respond to the City of Ottawa's request to be reimbursed for the costs of keeping the peace during a two-week Tamil protest in 2009.
Thousands of Tamil protesters gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in the spring of 2009 to urge the Canadian government to intervene and protect Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil population. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

The Public Safety Ministry has yet to respond to the City of Ottawa's request to be reimbursed for the costs of keeping the peace during a two-week Tamil protest in the capital more than a year ago.

In the spring of 2009, hundreds of protesters demanding the Conservative government intervene to aid civilians caught up in Sri Lanka's civil war clogged the streets in and around the parliamentary precinct in downtown Ottawa.

The City of Ottawa needed extra police, firefighters and paramedics. The total bill was $900,000 — $600,000 for police and $300,000 for emergency services.

"I don't think the taxpayers of Ottawa [should] foot the bill for a federal government responsibility," said Eli El-Chantiry, chairman of the city's police services board.

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In an attempt to recoup the costs, the city sent a formal request to then public safety minister Peter Van Loan asking for reimbursement, given protesters were demonstrating against the federal government.

But the city has yet to receive even an acknowledgement of the request. El-Chantiry said he finds it "bizarre" the department didn't even bother responding.

Ottawa police Chief Vern White said he didn't think there was any harm in asking for reimbursement, "as long as we don't take it personal when it's refused."

When asked for a response, Sophie Bédard, a spokeswoman for the Public Safety Ministry, replied in an email: "Unfortunately, we do not have a spokesperson available to be interviewed, but we are working on a written response to your questions."

The subsequent written response sent by the department failed to address the lack of acknowledgement of the city's request, instead pointing out readily available information about the protocols that exist between cities such as Ottawa and the federal government when it comes to security costs.

El-Chantiry acknowledged that the city receives an annual payment of $2 million to cover policing costs for events such as Canada Day and visits by heads of state. 

But he said the Tamil protest fell outside that deal because it was a spontaneous gathering and not a planned event.

Protests also held in Toronto, Montreal

Tamil protests were also held in other Canadian cities, including Montreal and Toronto. In Toronto, demonstrators blocked off a major highway during morning rush-hour, creating a security bill much larger than Ottawa's.

A spokesperson for the Toronto Police Services Board refused to provide an exact figure, but said it was higher than $1 million. The city covered the costs.

But El-Chantiry said Ottawa is a special case.

"Ottawa faces more demonstrations per year than Toronto does," he explained. "The Tamils demonstrated in Toronto one day or maybe two. In Ottawa, it was 14 days."

Ottawa's police chief said one of the challenges of dealing with the Tamil protests was that most of the protesters were from outside the capital region.

"It's a large community," White said. "It's divided and a lot of them have strong beliefs and they're willing to express those beliefs. They're able to bring people in from other cities and that's exactly what we saw. The Tamil community protesting in downtown Ottawa was primarily from Toronto."

White said absorbing the costs has been tough for his force.

"We stopped a number of things we were planning to do — delayed purchases for a year for a number of different initiatives," he said.

Extra policing costs affect other services 

But the issue of absorbing costs for what some consider federal-related events extends beyond Ottawa. A growing number of municipalities are complaining about covering the bills to police what they consider to be activities related to the federal government.

In 2006, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Ottawa-based organization that lobbies for cities, crunched the numbers.

The group concluded the largest cities — Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg — were spending an additional $500 million to police borders, maintain counterterrorism units, conduct major drug investigations and fight cybercrime, which are all areas the federation argues are the responsibility of the federal government.

The lobby group plans to prepare another report to update the government on what it calls an "urgent" problem. 

Brock Carlton, the federation's chief executive officer, predicted the $500-million figure will be much higher, but he insisted that his group is not simply asking the federal government for more money. Instead, he wants to sit down and talk.

Carlton said cities are slashing services to pay extra policing bills and areas such as recreation and waste-water treatment could suffer.

"These are fundamental services that municipalities provide, and we're providing them on only eight cents of the tax dollars collected in this country," he said. "It's a very small proportion of the taxes collected for the expectations that citizens have of their municipal governments."

But in a time of restraint, and on the heels of major stimulus spending on roads and bridges, the federal government may not be in a mood to give municipalities any more money for policing over and above the arrangements already in place. 

Still, Carlton believes his organization must push the government to talk.

"The time is now," he said.  "We need to have a discussion about who does what so that in the future, we can sort out a policing framework that makes more sense."

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