‘Many failure points’: Ottawa mayor tells Emergencies Act inquiry of city’s struggles, frustration with Ford

Outgoing Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson testified before the Public Order Emergency Commission on Oct. 18, as public hearings continued into the invocation of the Emergencies Act to end the “Freedom Convoy” protests.

During his appearance before the national inquiry, Watson acknowledged that the city had lost control and needed help very early into the protests, and said in his view there was “no question” that the government response to the protests was a failure at all levels.

Watson’s testimony also shed new light on internal city machinations, as well as how Ottawa corresponded with key provincial and federal players. One key revelation came from a readout of a conversation Watson had with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that revealed Trudeau felt Ontario Premier Doug Ford was “hiding from his responsibility… for political reasons.”

Here are some highlights from his testimony and the documents referenced during his appearance before the commission.

‘MANY FAILURE POINTS’ MAYOR SAYS

Perhaps the most telling exchange on the mayor’s views of the entire “Freedom Convoy” debacle came in questioning from a commission lawyer who—after hours of testimony indicating that the city was aware it needed considerable help as early as the Monday after the first weekend of protests—asked Watson whether he thought it was “a failure at all levels.”

His response? “Yeah there’s no question that, you know, when you look back in hindsight on what happened, there were many failure points along the way. And, you know, whether it was the city or the provincial or federal governments, we all have to take responsibility for the fact that we did not act fast enough, and that the people of Ottawa suffered the most as a result of the fact that we did not clean up that occupation for three weeks. It should have been done sooner.”

Asked then what the city could have been done differently, Watson pointed to policing and the need for additional help faster, and said resources were “overwhelmed,” describing how officials were essentially “treading water, trying to keep our head afloat.”

FRUSTRATED PM ACCUSES ONTARIO’S FORD OF ‘HIDING’

The most politically significant revelation from Watson’s testimony was contained in documents shared with the commission that shed light on how Watson and Trudeau were feeling about Ford’s involvement, or lack thereof.

In a rough transcript of a call held between Trudeau and Watson—in addition to the prime minister expressing frustration over the mayor and then-Ottawa Police chief Peter Sloly sharing mixed messages—it was revealed that Trudeau was frustrated with Ford.

“You can say yes the federal government will be there with more resource [sic], but again, thing that frustrates me… Doug Ford has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons,” the document reads.

It goes on to note that Trudeau also said it was “important that we don’t let them get away from that.”

In addition to this, Watson testified that then-Ontario solicitor general Sylvia Jones “declined” to attend discussions between federal, provincial and municipal officials, despite efforts from the federal government to get her to engage. He said similar efforts to get Ford on the line were also unsuccessful.

“I think he felt it would be a waste of time. You know, when he said that, I was quite frustrated with them. He said: ‘look, what’s it going to accomplish, a bunch of people sitting around a table talking and making decisions?’ and I said: ‘well, that sounds like a cabinet meeting.’ And he didn’t like that,” Watson said. “Now in fairness to the premier, when he did engage, it worked… But this thing should have been resolved in week one, not week three.”

This notable element of the testimony comes on the heels of Ford—who is not currently on the commission’s witness list—saying that the province “stood shoulder-to-shoulder’ with Trudeau on decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.

FRUSTRATION OVER ‘DISINGENUOUS’ POLICE DEPLOYMENTS

During his appearance, Watson also built on testimony given on Oct. 17 by his chief of staff Serge Arpin regarding a series of frank text messages with a top staffer in Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office.

In the exchange over how many additional RCMP officers were actually deployed, Arpin suggested that the national police force was “lying” about the number of officers deployed to assist, as many of them were sent to protect federal officials or locations rather than being in the thick of the protests.

Asked about the RCMP staffing, and what he called a similarly “disingenuous” claim about the number of OPP officers Ontario had offered up pre- Emergences Act invocation, Watson said: “It was a bit frustrating” because once the approximately 250 RCMP and 1,500 OPP officers were divided out over various shifts, it was “not a lot of officers.”

“We needed the large number… to get this situation under control, and kick these yahoos out of our city,” he said.

Watson agreed with a commission lawyer who asked him whether he thought there was “a significant delay” in the city receiving OPP and RCMP backup.

Responding to Watson’s claims, in a statement the Ontario solicitor general’s office said that the province’s position was that politicians shouldn’t direct specific police operations and that Ontario’s focus was on providing tools to police.

“Show me the Mounties,” Watson reiterated to the federal government on a call on Feb. 8, according to a transcript entered into evidence.

PLAYING ‘WHACK-A-MOLE’ WITH SECURITY CONCERNS

In an effort to paint a picture of the kind of public safety concerns Ottawa had, Watson spoke about the general chaos seen throughout downtown Ottawa streets, from DJs’ sound systems, bouncy castles and a pig roast, to the desecration of national monuments.

“It was a bit of a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole’ when they sort of resolved one situation, another thing would flare up. A good example of that was the shack that was being built near the canal and the NAC (National Arts Centre) and Confederation Park, this permanent structure where it was a food distribution point and it was very, very unsafe. There was propane, open fires, gasoline all stored in this area, and our fire chief and fire service said this is a tinderbox that could explode,” he said.

During the testimony, Watson also acknowledged what was evident at the time of the protests: that the city’s police force had “lost control” of the main protest “red zone,” citing swarming of police and bylaw officials as well as the inability to cut off the flow of gasoline.

The outgoing mayor also said that looking back, he would have “insisted that we have barricades, blockading Wellington Street as a first step,” so the protesters could not have Parliament Hill as their backdrop.

“I think it was symbolic on the part of the truckers,” he said.

WATSON ASKED PM FOR HELP ON JAN. 31

During his testimony, Watson said that Trudeau was the first person he spoke to about needing more help, and that happened on Jan. 31, the Monday after the first weekend of protests.

“The very first time that I had asked for additional resources was with the prime minister on that phone call, and he understood completely the situation we’re in,” Watson said. “He lives in Ottawa, obviously, and he was seeing firsthand the challenges our city was facing. So he was the first person that I contacted.”

According to a call readout shared with the commission, Watson told Trudeau that he felt as if “these people had their time and need to move on,” expressed concern that the protests had become “so volatile” and that more resources would be needed.

“That’s for sure,” Trudeau responded.

“We have to do this with a sense of balance, these guys are just looking for a fight,” Watson then said, according to the document entered into evidence.

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