Early warnings, blast assessments, jurisdictional skirmishes: What the commission heard from a top Ottawa official

Ottawa City Manager Steve Kanellakos testified before the Public Order Emergency Commission on Oct. 17, as public hearings continued into the invocation of the Emergencies Act to end the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests.

During his appearance before the commission, Kanellakos spoke about his involvement in the city’s planning for the protests, how they attempted to respond as they persisted—including corresponding with convoy leaders—and was questioned over a series of documents that shed new light on interactions between municipal, provincial, and federal jurisdictions over the unprecedented weeks-long situation.

Here are some highlights from his testimony and the documents referenced during his hearing.

HOTELS FLAGGED PLANS TO STAY LONGER

Early in his testimony, Kanellakos was asked about an email from the president of the Ottawa-Gatineau Hotel Association to the mayor’s office sent on Jan. 25—days before the convoy protesters arrived— that revealed they had clear plans to stay well beyond that first weekend.

In the email, it was flagged that the Canada United Truckers Convoy was looking to secure hotel rooms for the incoming protesters for “a minimum of 30 days to 90 days,” and noting that the current count of participants was estimated at “10,000 to 15,000,” who vowed to behave “in a lawful manner.”

In a thread stemming from this email, another city official referenced indications that truckers were planning to “leave their trucks in place, chain them together, and attempt to block all accesses to the city.” Kanellakos said this information was passed along to the Ottawa Police Service, who has previously indicated they had limited intelligence on what was heading Ottawa’s way in advance of the protesters descending.

Asked by a commission lawyer then if he thought the city was prepared, given the conflicting information about the protesters’ intentions, Kanellakos said he thought they were ready heading into the weekend, “with the assumption that they were leaving after the weekend.” If that had been the case, the protest would have been “very much an insignificant event compared to what it turned out to be.”

CITY STRUGGLED TO SECURE TOW TRUCKS

Prior to the federal government invoking the Emergencies Act to in-part compel tow truck drivers to move vehicles blocking roads, Kanellakos testified on Oct. 17 that “early on” in the protests, the city explored options to access “heavy-duty” tow trucks capable of moving transport trucks.

He said that other than two capable vehicles from OC Transpo, the city was “getting declined by everybody,” even companies who were contractually obligated to tow when the city called, citing reputational damage and being sympathetic to the truckers as some of the reasons given.

“We had no access to any tow trucks other than the two that we had, and our staff were reluctant to go in,” he said. Asked by a commission lawyer then what, if anything, the city did to compel companies to take part in towing, Kanellakos said it was a short timeframe so they were limited but that city officials and lawyers were “looking at the contracts to start taking action.”

“Even then, to make them do it probably would have been a difficult situation at that stage of the protests,” he testified.

Around this time in the testimony, Kanellakos also referenced trepidation from Ottawa bylaw officials to ticket vehicles out of concern for both “catching the wrong fish” and “the volatility they might create.”

ONTARIO’S ROLE IN EMERGENCY DECLARATION

Kanellakos spoke about the factors that went into the city declaring a state of emergency at the municipal level, which eventually happened on Feb. 6. The city manager said that the city has limited authorities in declaring an emergency and largely the advantage of doing so would be getting “the attention of other levels of government.”

He said that the tipping point in the city making an emergency declaration was by that point it was clear the protesters were dug in and police didn’t have the resources they needed to end it. It was also at this point that the city wanted to pressure the province to step in.

According to a document submitted to the commission summarizing a call between city, provincial, and federal officials convened by then-Deputy Minister of Public Safety Canada Rob Stewart, the “expressed intent” from Ottawa in declaring an emergency was “to put pressure on the premier to exercise powers to resolve this.”

“Until that point, the province was taking the posture that this was a law enforcement issue… and that they weren’t going to get involved politically,” Kanellakos said. “The premier has a lot more authority in terms of powers… And up until that point, they hadn’t declared.” Ontario’s declaration of emergency to help deal with the protests and Windsor border blockade came on Feb. 11. Three days later, with little progress in the capital, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act.

HILL SECURITY DID ‘BOMB BLAST ASSESSMENT’

Kanellakos was also asked about an “agreement” reached “through backchannel negotiations” between convoy protesters and the city on Feb. 12 to see trucks exit residential neighborhoods.

As a result, more trucks ended up moving into the downtown core, specifically on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill, which the commission heard on Oct. 17 sparked a strong reaction from the Parliamentary Protective Service (PPS), responsible for security in the parliamentary precinct.

According to documents presented to the commission, in an email, acting director of the PPS Larry Brookson reached out to Kanellakos seeking to set up a call with city officials to discuss his concern about the arrangement that Brookson described as turning Wellington Street “into a parking lot of 200 plus trucks.” This meeting did not occur, the commission heard.

“Quite honestly Steve I am at a loss as to how this sort of agreement could have been worked out with a clear disregard to security, especially considering that we just finished a bomb blast assessment which included the threat of explosive being transferred via large vehicles,” Brookson wrote.

During this period of time, as the protests continued and PPS evaluated the potential impact an explosive blast would have on the surrounding area, members of Parliament continued to conduct their business on the Hill.

Asked about this, Kanellakos said that he was under the impression that the PPS was informed about what was happening on the ground, and that “the bomb blast assessment, quite frankly—I’m not disregarding it—but it was a little late then. We already had hundreds of trucks up on Wellington Street.”

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