Ottawa police chair disputes claim that talks to end ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest were near a ‘breakthrough’

OTTAWA — The former chair of the Ottawa police board says she was not aware of any negotiations that could have ended the so-called “Freedom Convoy” occupation around Parliament Hill last winter, and that the federal government was right to invoke the Emergencies Act to deal with the crisis.

But others who worked with protest organizers in Ottawa argue the government moved too quickly in light of talks with the city to move blockading vehicles from residential streets.

The debate is playing out after revelations last week — first reported in the Star — that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser told cabinet ministers there was “potential for a breakthrough” with protesters in Ottawa the night before the government announced it had invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time since the law was enacted in 1988.

According to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office, the adviser was referring to negotiations led primarily by the City of Ottawa, which were unsuccessful and ultimately helped push the government to create special police powers under the federal emergencies law to resolve the situation.

The government has justified the move by stating the powers were used as a last resort, and that the protests — which included the Ottawa occupation and border blockades across the country — featured political extremists with the potential for “serious violence” and severe economic impacts.

In an interview with the Star on Thursday, Diane Deans — who was chair of the city’s police board at the time — said she was surprised by the reported reference to a potential breakthrough with Ottawa protesters.

Deans said the only talks she knew about were “very targeted” negotiations between the city and protest organizers to accomplish one goal: move protesters’ vehicles out of residential areas and closer to Parliament Hill.

“I never understood those discussions to be about ending the protests,” Deans said, arguing the movement of vehicles should not have deterred the federal government from invoking the Emergencies Act.

“We still, in my estimation, had a big problem unfolding in Ottawa.”

A spokesperson for Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declined interview requests from the Star this week, stating the mayor will not speak about the events until he appears at a public inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act this fall.

The Ottawa Police Service also declined to comment Thursday about any negotiations with convoy protesters.

Keith Wilson, a lawyer who worked with convoy organizers during the protests, told the Star on Thursday he was involved in back-channel discussions between the city, protest leaders and Dean French, Premier Doug Ford’s former chief of staff, who acted as a liaison between the two sides.

Wilson said the only negotiations with the city were about moving trucks and vehicles off streets with condos and apartment blocks, and that protest leaders were genuinely supportive of the idea.

He shared letters dated Feb. 12 between convoy organizer Tamara Lich — who faces a slew of criminal charges in relation to her role in the protests — and Watson, which indicate the city expected more than 400 trucks to move over the next three days.

Wilson said protest leaders distributed 800 copies of a memo to truckers parked on residential streets. The memo, which Wilson provided to the Star, said convoy leaders planned to “consolidate our protest to the streets in front of Parliament” and that there was “also room for trucks to relocate to 88” — a highway exit towards one of three encampments outside of the city, where protesters could stay and commute back downtown to participate in demonstrations.

He said protest leaders also held a “logistics meeting” with city officials about how they would move their trucks.

By Feb. 14, the day the government invoked the Emergencies Act, Wilson said 42 semi trucks had moved off residential streets — 23 onto the road in front of Parliament, and the rest out of the city. He said organizers wanted to continue moving but could not do so without further co-operation from police, who had set up concrete barricades throughout the downtown core.

He also downplayed statements from Deans and others that the protest organizers were divided over the decision to move trucks. For instance, a Twitter post from Lich on Feb. 13 that was later deleted said reports of the deal were a “media lie.” But Wilson claimed the post was actually written by another protest organizer with access to Lich’s account, who was not aware of the arrangement to move vehicles.

While protesters intended to continue pushing their demands to lift federal vaccine mandates, Wilson said they “wanted de-escalation. They wanted to relieve the pressure on the residents and others in the downtown core … The mayor wanted the city back, and they agreed.”

Responding to questions from the Star by email on Thursday, French confirmed he was the “negotiator” between protesters and the city. He said the government should have waited for the deal to play out before it invoked the Emergencies Act, stating that 100 vehicles in total — including the 42 semi trucks Wilson cited — had moved by Feb. 14.

“Had the operation been allowed to proceed, we might have seen some dialogue and movement on ending the broader demonstration,” French wrote.

“Because the prime minister and his cabinet panicked and jumped the gun, we will never know how significant the mayor’s peaceful agreement could have been. This was a total overreaction and will be a black mark in Canadian history.”

For three weeks beginning in late January, the streets around Parliament Hill were clogged with trucks and other vehicles that had traveled to Ottawa from across Canada. Protesters denounced COVID-19 health measures, spread false information and conspiracy theories about vaccines and the pandemic, and in some cases called for the elected Liberal government to be tossed out.

Local residents received a court injunction to prohibit honking, while police reported death threats against public officials and a flood of prank calls that clogged the city’s emergency phone lines.

The convoy occupation coincided with blockades by like-minded protesters at border crossings in Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta, where RCMP arrested 13 people and seized a cache of weapons and body armor as part of an alleged conspiracy to kill police officers.

The federal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 cited the potential for “serious violence,” as well as the economic harm of the protests. It said special powers were needed to formally declare illegal gatherings, compel tow truck drivers to help clear blockades, and freeze bank accounts of participants receiving money from domestic and foreign donors.

But the decision has drawn criticism, with opposition Conservatives arguing use of the Emergencies Act was an overreach. Civil liberties groups have also launched legal challenges of the move in Federal Court, where cabinet documents revealing the national security adviser’s comment about a possible “breakthrough” were made public last week.

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