Emergencies Act inquiry: Residents talk about impact of protests


Ottawa has faced a number of serious crises in recent years. A massive and destructive windstorm, flooding, a giant sinkhole that engulfed a busy downtown thoroughfare and, of course, a global pandemic.

Each time, the con. Mathieu Fleury says he remembers a white table being erected with name tags for all the key leaders in the response, where they were meeting to come up with a plan.

But when a convoy of big trucks arrived in Ottawa to kick off a protest that would drag on for weeks and rush the use of the federal Emergencies Act, there was no such table.

“I haven’t seen this white table situation and of all the crises I’ve seen, it’s kind of unique that I haven’t seen that,” Fleury said Friday as a witness in the investigation into the federal government’s inaugural use of the Emergencies Act.

Fleury and fellow downtown councilor Catherine McKenney, who is running for mayor, told the inquest they would forward increasingly desperate emails from residents to city officials and the mayor, but that They would get little feedback on a plan to deal with what they called an “occupation” of the capital.

The testimony was part of a thunderous introduction to life in Ottawa at the “Freedom Convoy” protest, complete with a recording of the deafening chorus of high-caliber horns that was played for the commission.

The first witness, a legally blind resident of downtown Ottawa, flinched as a recording of car horns sounded in the conference room for the benefit of the commissioner, lawyers, protest convoy organizers and members of the public .

The witness, Victoria De La Ronde, told the commission that the protest that came to Ottawa in late January was an “impairment to my hearing”, which she relied on to navigate the city independently.

“I found myself trapped,” said De La Ronde, who felt hopeless and unable to leave her home.

She became emotional when she told the commission that she finally begged a friend to pick her up and help her leave the convoy area. A few days later, she and her friend both contracted COVID-19.

In the days after the protest ended, De La Ronde said, she could still hear phantom horns blaring in her head. Even now, the sound of a car horn reverberates through her body, fraying her nerves, she says.

Convoy organizer Tamara Lich listened stoically from the public gallery as the lawyer representing her and her fellow organizers told De La Ronde he was sorry for the hardships she endured during the protest.

The commission examines the course and goals of the protest, the effect of misinformation and misinformation on the convoy, and police efforts before and after the declaration of an emergency.

“I didn’t feel safe, my guard was constantly up,” downtown resident Zexi Li said of the march through the streets of Ottawa during the protest.

Li, a 22-year-old public servant, filed a class action lawsuit against convoy organizers on Feb. 3, and an Ontario court granted her an injunction four days later to stop honking her horn.

On February 14, the federal Liberals invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time as protesters opposed to COVID-19 public health measures and the Trudeau government occupied the streets of downtown Ottawa and blocked border crossings.

The law temporarily granted extraordinary powers to police and authorized banks to freeze accounts, which the government said was essential to ending the protests.

Li and De La Ronde described feeling sleep deprived by the constant noise rising from the street.

Evidence provided to the commission showed that noise levels outside their homes sometimes reached 100 decibels – about as loud as a lawn mower.

“There was fear,” McKenney said. The councilor told the committee that residents felt “threatened”, particularly on residential streets.

McKenney often wandered the streets during the convoy and spotted safety hazards like open fires near fuel canisters or fireworks.

“It all combined has created an exceptionally unsafe environment for people, yards from their bedrooms, children’s living spaces, the school downtown,” McKenney said.

McKenney and Fleury said people felt abandoned by the police.

City center councilors said that at the start of the protest, the city was slow to respond. Even around the council table, their colleagues seemed eager to carry on with their usual business in virtual meetings they attended from home, while trucks roared past City Hall.

During the crisis, the elected officials proposed several solutions: injunction, curfew, entrusting the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Precinct to the RCMP.

At one point, a motion was brought to council asking the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act, but this motion was defeated.

Those solutions never took off or were slow to arrive, Fleury said, adding that even the mayor’s declaration of a state of emergency came too late.

As of late January, when trucks began arriving in Ottawa, businesses were still closed under a provincial public health order. Some chose to open when the order was lifted at the protest, but others remained closed, said Nathalie Carrier, general manager of the Vanier Business Improvement Area.

In some ways, the convoy proved even more devastating than COVID-19 public health measures, Carrier told the commission, as road closures and other disruptions prevented staff from getting to work and deliveries. have been carried out. Sometimes food delivery services didn’t come into the area.

“Businesses have been completely crippled,” said Carrier, whose association represents a neighborhood east of downtown Ottawa.

Rideau Center Mall, which contains hundreds of businesses and usually only closes for Christmas, closed on the first weekend of the protest and remained closed for 25 days.

At the time, police advised people to avoid the city center.

Carrier recalled then-Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly sympathizing with local business groups and saying he was also afraid, although the former chief’s lawyer disputed that claim. .

In times of crisis, “you look to your leaders to have a plan and to be stable and I remember very specifically feeling that maybe our leaders were a little shaken up, and that’s scary,” he said. she declared.

Witness testimony was compelling, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said in a statement, but did not shed light on why police needed extraordinary powers.

“The impact on Ottawa residents and Ottawa businesses does not explain why a public order emergency has been declared affecting the entire country,” the statement said.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 14, 2022.