Had the Emergencies Act not been invoked by the Liberal government, the Freedom Convoy protest would still have been cleared by law enforcement, says Ottawa Police Service (OPS) interim Chief Steve Bell.
“In the absence of the invocation of the Emergencies Act, the OPS, the OPP, the RCMP—as part of unified command—were going to clear the protests,” Bell told the Public Order Emergency Commission on Oct. 24.
A summary of Bell’s interview with commission counsels on Aug. 29 says “he did not have an opinion on whether the Emergencies Act was necessary to end the occupation.”
Bell was OPS deputy chief in charge of intelligence when the Freedom Convoy started in January and became interim chief on Feb. 15, a day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a public order emergency.
Despite saying police could have cleared the protest without the act, or that he did not have an opinion on the matter, Bell told the commission the act helped dislodge the protest with four specific measures.
He noted as useful the definition of a no-protest zone, the compelling of tow trucks, the freezing of financial accounts of supporters, and the increased speed to swear-in police officers coming from other jurisdictions.
Rob Kittredge, counsel for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), challenged Bell on those four points.
Kittredge asked Bell whether the swearing-in of officers could have been done without using the Emergencies Act, and within 24 hours.
“They absolutely could have been sworn in without it. It just could have created a backlog and lag time,” said Bell.
“It could likely have been done in 24 hours, but I don’t think the benefit was as to when it could get done, I think the benefit was to that as soon as a member was boots on the ground in Ottawa, landed in Ottawa, they were operationally ready to be deployed.”
On the issue of compelling tow trucks, Kittredge made the allegation emergency powers were never used to secure them.
“I don’t know that. So that’s a better question directed at Superintendent [Robert] Bernier,” said Bell.
Kittredge said Bernier “is expected to testify to the effect that emergency powers were not needed to compel towing companies to supply trucks or drivers, because by February 13, the OPP had retained 34 tow trucks with willing drivers.”
About the freezing of financial accounts without a court order, Bell said he had no direct knowledge of that measure inciting protesters to leave voluntarily or being deterred from coming to Ottawa.
Bell also said the definition of an exclusionary zone could have been achieved without the Emergencies Act, though that is “an uncommon authority that police exercise.”
“The ability for us to be very clear in how we were managing, striking up and excluding people from that zone was extremely important to us to be able to execute the plans that we did,” Bell said.
Information from senior police officers from other jurisdictions revealed at the commission so far indicates they did not believe the Emergencies Act was necessary to clear the protest.
RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki told the chief of staff of Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino on Feb. 14 that all legal tools had not been exhausted. The Trudeau government invoked the act a few hours later.
OPP Chief Superintendent (retired) Carson Pardy, who was in charge of helping to plan the removal of the protest, told the commission on Oct. 21 the act was not necessary.
“We had some help with [the provincial declaration of emergency] and the Emergencies Act, but in my humble opinion, we would have reached the same solution with the plan that we had without either of those pieces of legislation,” Pardy said.