OTTAWA – It took just a few hours on that cold Saturday in January for Peter Sloly to realize he had an occupation of the capital city on his hands, but the former Ottawa police chief told a public inquiry on Friday he never felt another police force needed to step in and take control.
The ex-chief was a highly anticipated witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is examining the Liberal government’s unprecedented decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to help clear protesters blocking the streets around Parliament Hill and several border crossings.
And his testimony came after the public inquiry received evidence from both the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP that they had different thoughts about whether the Ottawa police, and Sloly in particular, should stay in charge of the troubled response to the protests.
Sloly resigned on Feb. 15, the day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the act, amid widespread criticism of how he and the Ottawa police had handled the weeks-long protest, which shuttered businesses and subjected residents to endless honking, and even harassment.
“My challenge literally up until my last day in office wasn’t additional legislation or injunctions,” Sloly told the commission on Friday.
“It was resources.”
The Emergencies Act is meant to be used when an urgent, critical and temporary situation threatens the lives, health or safety of Canadians, the provinces are thought to lack the capacity or authority to respond and the crisis cannot be handled effectively with existing laws.
Justice Paul Rouleau, the commissioner of the inquiry, spent Friday listening to Sloly defend his reading of intelligence reports, which flagged how the “Freedom Convoy” protesters on their way to Ottawa had not just the resolve, but the financial backing, to dig in and stay for the long haul.
Once the crowds protesting COVID-19 mandates and the Liberal government were in the city, Sloly testified, the senior ranks of the Ottawa police suffered disorganization and a lack of communication on crafting a plan to end the blockades.
Minutes taken during a Feb. 1 meeting between Sloly and other senior officers show that while they discussed different enforcement options, deputy chief Patricia Ferguson asked about “the possibility of military being called in or a state of emergency being declared.”
On Friday, Sloly was asked about a public comment he made the day after the meeting, when he shared that he was “increasingly concerned there is no policing solution to this.” The remark caused much confusion at the time.
“This was a national scope event,” Sloly said Friday. He said he was referring to the size and scale of the protest being too much for one police force to handle. He admitted that in hindsight, he should have been more clear about what he meant.
As the protest dragged on and pressure mounted to clear the demonstrators from downtown, Sloly said he felt his leadership called into question.
In his testimony, Sloly said he pushed back against the pressure he was facing to come up with a plan as a precursor to securing the help he had been asking for – specifically, 1,800 more police officers. The former chief suggested it was a chicken-or-egg problem, where he believed he needed a commitment on more resources before he could complete a plan.
On Thursday, the commission was shown a series of text messages between RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique on Feb. 5, where Lucki says the federal government was losing confidence in Ottawa police.
Ten days later, Lucki, Carrique and other high-ranking OPP officers discussed the need for the provincial force to take control of the situation, according to notes of a meeting that took place Feb. 15, the day Sloly ultimately resigned.
Carrique also testified it was clear by that point Ottawa police were struggling to get a plan in motion to clear the protest.
Sloly said Friday he had direct experiences with officials at all three levels of government that left him with a clear sense they had low levels of support for his leadership. But, Sloly, who was named police chief in 2019, said his decision to resign was ultimately his own.
Sloly dismissed the notion that the Ontario Provincial Police, as a single police force, could have removed the blockade.
The commission heard that provincial policing legislation allows one police force to ask another police force to step in, but Sloly testified Friday he did not think that was necessary.
“If I felt the conditions in Ottawa required that level of intervention from the OPP or any other police service, I would obviously be making that request and therefore be very comfortable with it,” he said.
“But I was not making that request.”
Earlier in the day, tears welled up in the former chief’s eyes and he paused when the commission lawyer asked him how his officers managed the weekend of Jan. 29, which is when thousands of protesters and heavy trucks descended on the city.
“They were doing their very best under inhuman circumstances,” Sloly said.
“It was too cold and it was too much.”
Sloly also said he did not think he had the legal standing under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to prevent protesters from parking their trucks and other vehicles downtown.
“I’m a police officer, not a lawyer,” he said.
The former chief says there were multiple convoys that came to Ottawa. He questioned why he was not receiving intelligence from federal agencies on what was coming when protesters travelled from different points across the country.
Sloly began his testimony Friday by characterizing himself as an “outsider” chief, who had spent more than 20 years with the Toronto police.
He says the Ottawa police board hired him to fix the culture within the force and to build more trust with Black, Indigenous and the other racialized communities in the city.
He testified that by spring 2020, his leadership was challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, a shakeup in senior staff and louder calls to defund the police after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2022.