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Ottawa police plagued by infighting and an insurrection against chief during protests, inquiry hears

National Post logo National Post 2022-10-19 Christopher Nardi , Catherine Lévesque
Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly listens to a reporter’s question as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions continues into its second week, in Ottawa, on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. © Provided by National Post Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly listens to a reporter’s question as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions continues into its second week, in Ottawa, on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022.
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OTTAWA – The chair of the committee overseeing Ottawa’s police says there was “constant” infighting within the force that hampered its ability to deal with the Freedom Convoy protests and undermined Chief Peter Sloly’s authority.

The infighting within the Ottawa Police Service got so bad that it caused an operation to take down a blockade in the core of downtown to be called off even though 400 officers were ready to move in, Diane Deans told the Public Order Emergency Commission on Wednesday.

But Deans, who is also a city councillor, also testified that in the days leading up to the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa on Jan. 29, Sloly reassured city councillors that protesters would only stay for the weekend despite receiving intelligence from provincial police that they planned on staying longer.

The commission’s mandate is to determine if the federal government met the legal threshold to invoke the exceptional powers contained in the Emergencies Act in February to end the protest.

Deans, who chaired the Ottawa Police Service Board during most of the winter protests, told commission counsel in August that the infighting within police was “constant” but it got even worse during some “flare-ups,” such as each of the four times the OPS incident commander was changed.

She also said that Sloly, who became Ottawa’s first Black police chief in 2019, faced challenges to his authority “from the outset,” which only got worse as the Freedom Convoy dug in.

She said he faced “racism” within his own organization and was perceived as an “outsider” by some factions of the police because he arrived from the Toronto Police Service.

“There was infighting within the OPS and certain complaints against Chief Sloly were brought to the OPSB’s attention,” reads a summary of the August interview with Deans.

“He struggled throughout his time and was never able to develop deep support from the rank and file and perhaps even the senior officers within the OPS.”

By the time the Freedom Convoy protests began and Sloly required strong support within the OPS “that support was elusive, which caused frustration and a lot of stress for him,” Deans told the commission.

“There seems to be an attempt to use this crisis to undermine the chief further,” Deans testified Wednesday.

Sloly is set to testify to the commission in the next few weeks. He resigned on Feb. 15, the day after the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act to end the protest.

Deans was herself ousted as chair of the board by Mayor Watson and a majority of councillors in a high-drama city council meeting on Feb. 16, nearly three weeks after the start of the occupation.

Deans described the events leading up to this moment as “frustrating”.

As the Freedom Convoy converged towards Ottawa, she said she asked Sloly on Jan. 27 if he expected protesters to stay downtown longer than the first weekend.

Sloly told her local police were not receiving warnings from intelligence agencies that it’s anything “other than protests” and that he would be “very surprised” if protesters were still in the city on the following Monday, she recounted.

“You know, the more I was watching this, the more concerned I was getting. And he said to me, ‘What are you so worried about now?’,” she added.

But she says what she did not know at the time was that Ontario Provincial Police was sending intelligence briefings to the Ottawa police warning Freedom Convoy organizers planned on staying in Ottawa much longer.

“Once in Ottawa, Freedom Convoy 2022 organizers have stated an intent to remain at Parliament Hill until the Federal government concedes to repeal all COVID-19 public health restrictions and mandates,” reads a Jan. 26 “situational awareness bulletin” by the OPP’s provincial operations intelligence bureau.

“Organizers have indicated they are planning to stage disruptions that may gridlock areas around Parliament buildings and parts of Ottawa. There is no expressed departure date for when participants will disperse or the action will end.”

A separate Ottawa police email sent to some city staff on Jan. 28 also warned that “all open source information and our interactions with organizers indicate that this will be a significant and extremely fluid event that could go on for a prolonged period.”

Deans told the commission that the police service board had not received a copy or even “high-level summary” of that intelligence. She said she wished they had.

She also said she was not aware of a Jan. 26 email to some city councillors from the city’s hotel association warning that convoy members were looking to rent hotel rooms for 10,000 to 15,000 people for up to 90 days.

The OPP intelligence briefing document also warned the convoy protest “may create” a situation where “ideologically motivated extremists” could join the demonstration, and that some could “escalate actions beyond what is peaceful and lawful.”

By the Tuesday following the first weekend of protests, Sloly already started referring to the protest as an “occupation.”

Deans recalled that it was on Feb. 3 that conversations with the convoy negotiators “had broken down” and that it appeared more protesters would be coming back to Ottawa for a second weekend.

“It really resonated with me that perhaps it was a bit of wishful thinking that they were going to be able to get this wrapped up and gone after that horrific first weekend,” she said.

“And then the thought of going through a second weekend with more people, wreaking havoc in our neighbourhoods in the downtown core was disturbing.”

Deans, who was in constant contact with Sloly, said she was nonetheless worried about his well-being and would check on him regularly. It was during one of these calls that she recounted the chief of police may be considering resigning.

One week prior to his resignation on Feb. 15, she recalled Sloly telling her “cut me a check and I’ll be out of here”.

Deans said she “did not expect that” answer at the time.

Both of them had another conversation on the evening of Feb. 14 in which Deans asked him if he meant it when he said he would leave his position. He told her, according to her account, that “he wasn’t going anywhere”.

The next day, he called her to tell her he would step down.

Deans proceeded to recruit someone from the outside, Waterloo police chief Matthew Torigian, to act as interim Ottawa police chief in order to reinstate some confidence in the OPS in order to deal with all the “infighting”.

In an exceptional move, Deans provided a recording of a call with Watson to the inquiry the morning of her testimony. She admitted that she recorded the conversation without his knowledge because she did not trust him anymore.

The recording revealed the mayor favoured promoting deputy police chief Steve Bell act as interim chief instead, and that it would be “destabilizing” for OPS to change course as it was trying to end the occupation.

Deans said she asked Bell what he would have done differently than Sloly during the occupation, and said his response was “nothing”.

She also asked Watson if he was aware of a motion coming at council, later that day, to remove her from her position as chair of the police board.

“I’ve worked really hard for last 20 days I think it would be a courtesy to at least let me know what’s coming at me,” she said during the call.

Watson said he was not aware of any motion at that time.


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