Weekend raid on protest camp at Laurier and Nicholas dominates police budget meeting

OTTAWA — Ottawa’s police chief says the safety of both officers and demonstrators was top-of-mind when the Ottawa Police Service broke up an encampment of peaceful protesters at a downtown intersection this weekend.

More than 90 people signed up to speak Monday at the Ottawa Police Services Board meeting discussing the 2021 draft budget, and many spoke of the raid on the protest camp. The raid was part of both the chair’s opening remarks and the chief’s verbal update.

The budget includes a $13.2 million increase over 2020 spending and includes the hiring of 30 new officers and spending on a multi-year strategy to improve responses to calls involving mental health distress, but delegations say they want the board to vote against the funding increase and redirect the funds to other community initiatives.

At the start of the meeting, board chair Coun. Diane Deans said that she knows many people want to see the police budget frozen or reduced. She indicated in her verbal report that she does not support a freeze or a cut to the police budget at this time.

“Many believe that the solution can quickly be found in cutting or freezing the police budget. I do believe that is a future possibility,” Deans said, “but I cannot support you in that request at this time. I know you will be disappointed to hear that, but the work that we want to take on requires funding and we want it done right.”

The board meeting comes just days after police broke up a protest camp at the intersection of Laurier Avenue and Nicholas Street in the early morning hours of Saturday. The protest, a call to action for Black and Indigenous rights, started Thursday afternoon at city hall before making its way to Laurier and Nicholas. It was organized by several groups, including the Justice for Abdirahman coalition, the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition and the KZ Land Protectors.

Both Deans and Police Chief Peter Sloly addressed the arrests in their verbal updates Monday afternoon. Deans denied any involvement by the police services board.

“I want to make it abundantly clear; at no time did this board direct the events of Friday night,” Deans said. “I, as chair of the Police Service Board, along with two of my work colleagues, had agreed to meet with representatives of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition to state the board’s willingness to engage in meaningful dialog in the hopes we could find common ground. I was hopeful that in so doing, protesters would see we are genuine in our intent and end the encampment at the intersection of Laurier and Nicholas. The decision to remove the protest was made outside of the control of the board.”

Protest a growing risk to public safety: Sloly

Police Chief Sloly said in his verbal update to the board that the decision to remove the encampment was made for reasons of public safety.

While Sloly said that the freedom of expression of anyone demonstrating in Ottawa is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but that the demonstration was a growing risk to public safety.

“We received no advance notice of this event and learned of it only when calls came into our operations centre from the area that a demonstration had materialized and was creating traffic safety and broader public safety issues,” he said. “We saw contact between pedestrians, vehicles and demonstrators, leading to increased tension and confrontations. We also saw major impacts on traffic throughout the downtown core and across the scene.”

Sloly claimed the impact on the intersection affected traffic not only in Ottawa but in Quebec as well.

Demonstrators maintained that they kept a lane of traffic available for emergency vehicles.

Thirteen people were arrested early Saturday. One, who was underage, was released without charges. The remaining 12 are facing charges of mischief and released with conditions, but Sloly said the Ottawa Police Service is working with the Crown on “post-charge diversions.”

Sloly said police watched as calls were made on social media to bring more people and supplies to the site, and said that while officers maintained a dialog with the demonstrators there was “very little cohesive leadership at that site” that was able or willing to negotiate.

The decision to break up the camp in the overnight hours of Saturday was made to protect the safety of both police and the protesters, Sloly said.

“We chose the early morning hours of Saturday the lessen the impact on the entire city and to improve the safety of the demonstrators,” he said.

Sloly added that no one was injured during the operation. He said, when officers arrived at the scene at 3:30 a.m. Saturday, most demonstrators chose to leave after “multiple warnings” were issued, though demonstrators say they were given just a few minutes to pack up their belongings.

The encampment was dismantled hours before groups were set to meet with Deans and others. Sloly said the meetings were not brought forward “within the command structure that had been set up by the Ottawa Police Service to assess and address the public safety issues” and that while they may have been important vis-à-vis the demonstrators’ concerns, the meetings did not decrease the safety risks associated with the protest.

“In some cases, it created a further lack of clarity, more confusion, and less ability for us to reach a more successful and timely outcome,” Sloly said.

Delegates call on board to vote down the budget

Nintey-four people signed up to speak at Monday’s budget meeting, though two later cancelled, according to the board meeting’s agenda on the City’s website.

More than 30 delegations had spoken by the time this article was published. 

They called on the board the vote against the $13.2 million increase to police funding and some chastised Deans for saying in her opening remarks that she does not support a budget cut or freeze.

Many also called for charges to be dropped against the 12 individuals who were arrested at Laurier and Nicholas on Saturday morning.

Some speakers also said the arrests on Saturday, and some of the comments made during the meeting on Monday, have done further damage to the relationship between police and Indigenous and Black communities.

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