Convoy protesters were expected to leave Ottawa during 1st week, city says

A new City of Ottawa memo is shedding more light on the early days of the truck convoy protest and when officials thought participants in the disruptive occupation were going to leave town.

The so-called Freedom Convoy, which occupied large swaths of downtown Ottawa for weeks, was dispersed by police from several agencies on Feb. 19, after protesters ignored many orders to leave. 

Three days earlier, the councillor for Ottawa’s Rideau-Vanier ward, Mathieu Fleury, peppered the city with questions about its response up to that date.

Among other things, Fleury asked what prompted the city to wait until Feb. 6 to declare its state of emergency rather than the week before, when protesters remained downtown after their first weekend of blaring horns and blocking streets. 

Mathieu Fleury is the city councillor for Ottawa’s Rideau-Vanier ward. (Simon Lasalle/CBC)

The city’s March 18 reply to Fleury’s inquiry was posted online earlier this week. 

Among its new insights is that on Jan. 30, the National Capital Region Command Centre (NCRCC) — which pooled municipal, provincial and federal information sharing efforts — expected protesters would leave the city “no later than” Feb. 2.

By the tail end of the protest’s second weekend on Feb. 6, however, it was clear the protesters had dug in, according to the response. 

Here’s how the city’s disclosures fit into a timeline of previously released details about the early days of the occupation.

Jan. 28-30: Crowds swelled to as many as 18,000 people on Saturday, then shrank to 3,000 on Sunday, according to the Ottawa Police Service (OPS), which led efforts to quell the protest. 

Both the police service and the city’s emergency operations centre had representatives at the NCRCC, according to the response to Fleury. 

“[The NCRCC] was expecting that the protesters would be leaving the city no later than Feb. 2. The city’s understanding is that this was the information being shared by the protest organizers with the police liaison teams,” the reply said.

“On Jan. 30, therefore, it was not known by the city that the protests would turn into a prolonged occupation.”

Vehicles, including a bus and some trucks, line up on Queen Elizabeth Parkway on Jan. 30. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Feb. 1: Police said 250 protesters stayed behind but did not offer a vehicle count for the remaining convoy.

Feb. 2: In a news release, convoy organizer Chris Barber stated that protesters — who sought an audience with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about their opposition to COVID-19 mandates — planned to “remain in Ottawa for as long as it takes.”

The OPS said intelligence suggested numbers were expected to swell over the coming second weekend. 

A crowd gathers on Wellington Street on Feb. 2. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Feb. 4: Interim police Chief Steve Bell, then serving as deputy chief, said hundreds of trucks, up to 2,000 more protesters and as many as 1,000 more counter-protesters could arrive on the weekend of Feb. 4-6.

The numbers were likely to decline on Feb. 7, as they did after the first weekend, Bell said. 

Police didn’t expect large numbers of trucks in residential areas, Bell added, and would have done more to steer them away if they had.

Kids play hockey on Wellington Street on Feb. 4. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Feb. 5: Police Chief Peter Sloly, who later resigned amid concerns about the handling of the protest, said his force did not have enough resources to end what would morph into an occupation.

Bell said intelligence from security partners across the country when the convoys first set off suggested they would stay a short time and leave.

Feb. 6: Ten days into the protest, it was “clear that the situation had become entrenched,” according to the city’s reply to Fleury.

“Ottawa was facing citywide impacts related to resident safety, critical infrastructure, businesses, essential worker accesses,” the reply said.

The OPS said it would ramp up enforcement against protesters, including blocking the flow of fuel to trucks, while Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency.

“It was also apparent that Ottawa Police Service was outnumbered and could not implement the kind of enforcement operation required to safely remove the protesters without outside assistance,” according to the city’s response. 

READ HERE | The city’s reply to Coun. Fleury

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