Governments failed Ottawa residents during convoy occupation, people's commission finds
A report into the impact of the "Freedom Convoy" occupation on residents of Ottawa has accused all three levels of government of failing to uphold the human rights of people who live and work in downtown Ottawa.
The Ottawa People's Commission on the Convoy Occupation (OPC) describes itself as a grassroots effort to promote healing and justice after the convoy occupation of Ottawa-Gatineau in 2022. It is a program of Centretown Community Health Centre.
In a report released Monday titled "What We Heard", the OPC compiled the experiences of residents who live in downtown Ottawa and who endured the three-week long event, which began ostensibly as a protest against COVID-19 public health protection and the federal Liberal government and became entrenched as an occupation of downtown streets, as protesters blocked access, set up their own structures and supply chains, and refused to leave.
Of particular focus was the failure of the municipal, provincial, and federal governments to take into account the human rights of the people who were directly affected by the lengthy occupation.
"We have concluded that there was a wholesale failure on the part of all three orders of government to respond to the convoy in a manner that recognized their responsibilities to uphold the human rights of people living and working in the impacted communities," the report states. "We acknowledge and strongly affirm the importance of respecting rights related to protest, in particular the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. But there are recognized limits on those rights, notably when it comes to public safety and respecting the rights of other people, particularly the safety and rights of the most vulnerable members of the community."
The report claims there was a "colossal abdication" on the parts of the city of Ottawa, the province of Ontario and the government of Canada with regard to respecting human rights of residents. It also says mechanisms for ensuring rights are upheld have long been ineffective.
"The response to the convoy occupation has starkly demonstrated that to be the case, as there was little evidence of collaborative action by the municipal, provincial and federal governments, even in the midst of a crisis, to ensure the rights of Ottawa residents were being upheld," it said. "The complexities of federalism and jurisdictional jealousies or disagreements among governments can never be an excuse for failing to uphold human rights. But far too often, including during the convoy occupation, that has been the case."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Public Order Emergency Commission (POEC), the mandated inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act, that governments weren't always working in tandem during the occupation; however he claimed that there was, in the end, unity between the city, the province and the federal government, particularly on the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.
Residents who took part in the OPC said they felt abandoned by institutions and civic leaders, amid a protest that became an occupation and was, despite the insistence of participants and supporters, violent towards members of the community.
"In these accounts we have heard of people being violently assaulted and accosted on the street, including people with disabilities and in wheelchairs," the report said. "We have heard of violent incidents associated with COVID-19 mask requirements, such as aggressive threats and angry slurs against people wearing masks, forcefully ripping masks from people’s faces, and numerous heated exchanges when convoy participants were asked to wear masks in stores, coffee shops and other establishments."
Supporters of the convoy continually deny these experiences were legitimate, often citing a lack of police reports and charges; however, part of the issue residents raised was a lack of response by police to complaints.
"Almost without exception, in all of these attempts to encourage police to act on criminal complaints, or bylaw officers to enforce municipal bylaws, the response was inaction," the report found. "Often people simply received no response. Many people were told by police that they were not taking enforcement action in the red zone and were waiting for further orders. They were told that the police did not have sufficient resources to respond, or that they were not doing so because there was concern that taking action against convoy participants risked inflaming the situation."
The POEC heard that Ottawa police struggled to come up with a plan to deal with the convoy once it became entrenched in downtown. Police had incorrectly assumed the protesters would leave after the first weekend and had made no contingency plans for the extended duration, despite warnings from other police agencies, such as the OPP.
The People's Commission also heard about complaints to Ottawa Bylaw, which residents also said were ignored.
"Bylaw officers asked people to describe the vehicles that they were concerned about and when it became clear that it was, for instance, a truck taking part in the convoy, people were told that was a police matter. But when people then followed up with police, they were referred back to bylaw officers," the report says.
COMMUNITY MOBILIZED AS LEADERS FAILED
Despite the sense of abandonment and failure by civic leaders and authorities, the commission found that residents themselves came together to support each other during the occupation.
People held community safety walks, helped deliver groceries and medicine to residents who felt trapped or who were otherwise unable to get access to those supplies—for instance because public transit was not serving the area or because stores were closed. Of particular note was a large gathering of residents on Feb. 13, 2022 that became known as the "Battle of Billings Bridge" during which residents blocked a significant number of vehicles from entering the downtown core to participate in the convoy.
The notion that Centretown is not just government offices, but a neighbourhood where people live, work, and play was repeated throughout the report. Residents wanted to stress that Centretown is full of people of all ages and from all walks of life.
The commission heard from more than 200 people and received 75 written submissions. The OPC, being a grassroots effort by a local community association, cannot oblige governments to respond to its findings or recommendations, which are to be published in March, but it said its goal was to offer an analysis on the impact of both the convoy and response of police and government to the harms arising from the convoy from the unique perspective of the city’s residents and business owners who lived through that experience.
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