OTTAWA — The inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act will hear first-hand testimony Monday from top City of Ottawa officials about February’s “Freedom Convoy” protest, including the mayor.
Outgoing mayor Jim Watson, his chief of staff and the city’s manager are expected to detail for the commission the efforts they took to peacefully end protests in Ottawa.
The commission is tasked with examining the evolution and goals of the protests, the effect of misinformation and disinformation on the convoy, and the efforts of police before and after the emergency declaration.
Their testimony is expected to include details about the role each played in trying to negotiate an end to the protests prior to the Emergencies Act being invoked.
Ottawa city manager Steve Kanellakos’ met with some of the convoy organizers in early February in a then-secret meeting.
A few days later on Feb. 12, Tamara Lich, one of the protest leaders, and Watson exchanged letters discussing an agreement that would see the truckers move their vehicles outside of residential areas.
But convoy organizers were not on the same page about striking a deal, and some high-profile protesters said they had no plans to leave.
Watson and Kanellakos’ testimony will likely be supported by Serge Arpin, the mayor’s longtime chief of staff who rarely makes public statements.
The testimony from Ottawa officials is also expected to provide more information about how Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s ex-chief of staff, Dean French, offered to facilitate discussions with convoy organizers.
French and Arpin unsuccessfully tried to broker a deal between organizers in the days leading up to the use of the Emergencies Act.
During the first day of witness testimony, Coun. Mathieu Fleury and his fellow downtown councillor Catherine McKenney, who is running for mayor, told the inquiry they would forward increasingly desperate emails from residents to city officials and the mayor but would get little back in the way of a plan to deal with what they called an “occupation” of the capital city.
Outgoing city councillor Diane Deans, is also testifying this week.
During the convoy, Ottawa city council voted to oust Deans as chair of the local police services board, following the resignation of Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly the day prior.
Councillors who voted to remove her said they were concerned after learning the board agreed to hire a new interim chief to bolster the senior command at the Ottawa Police Service without a consultation process.
They also suggested the board was not effective in its oversight of the Ottawa police, who faced heavy criticism for its inaction during the protests.
At the time, Deans criticized Watson for trying to negotiate with the protesters.
Testimony this week is expected to explore internal conflicts between Deans and Watson, including frustrations the mayor was operating in a silo to stop the protests and didn’t communicate adequately about what he was doing with city council and, at times, police.
Acting deputy chief Patricia Ferguson, who led Ottawa’s police operation during the convoy, and OPP superintendent Craig Abrams are the first of a handful of police officers expected to testify.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2022.
David Fraser, The Canadian Press