In the days leading up to the mass protest in Ottawa last winter, police didn’t have intelligence suggesting the “Freedom Convoy” would use local citizens as a “leverage point”, interim police chief Steve Bell said Monday.
Bell made the comment while testifying at the Public Order Emergency Commission which is probing the federal Liberal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to clear protesters.
Bell was a deputy chief and in charge of intelligence when the convoy began but was elevated to interim chief in mid-February after Peter Sloly resigned.
Commission lawyer Frank Au spent the morning questioning Bell about police intelligence ahead of the protest, including a threat assessment police prepared for the convoy’s expected arrival in Ottawa on Jan. 29.
The commission heard last week that a local hotel association warned the City of Ottawa and police before protesters arrived that they were booking rooms for 30 days.
The Jan. 29 threat assessment report said protesters were coming in large numbers, had the financing to pay for food and lodging and that the conditions existed for emotions to run high.
But Bell testified the available intelligence before protesters arrived showed the convoy would largely be a three-day event, with only a small number staying longer than one weekend.
He also told the commission that intelligence said there were a lot of people involved in the convoy but that they had been “extremely lawful,” as they travelled towards Ottawa.
“They were people moving across the country determined to be heard, but they were peaceful,” Bell testified. “They indicated that their intention was to be peaceful when they got here.”
But Bell said that’s not what ultimately happened.
During his testimony, Bell repeatedly said the three-week long protest inflicted “violence,” “harm” and “trauma” onto residents in the city.
He said nothing in the intelligence warned that protesters would end up using Ottawa residents as collateral damage.
“There’s nothing that indicates that the protesters are going to use the citizens of our community as the leverage point to have their voices heard.”
Bell said based on intelligence police had before demonstrators first arrived, they didn’t feel they had a legal right to deny their access to the city core.
Bell also testified that police learned lessons from their handling of the convoy protests. He pointed to their response to the “Rolling Thunder” demonstration, which protesters staged several months later, but did not lead to prolonged blockades.
—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press