During dramatic testimony on Monday, former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly called out his former boss Bill Blair, who now serves as a federal minister, over his assertions that local police didn’t follow proper procedure to get help they needed during the “Freedom Convoy” protest last winter.
A summary of Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair’s interview with Public Order Emergency Commission lawyers was read aloud during a hearing of the public inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act on Monday.
While Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson had written directly to the Ontario and federal governments to appeal for more police officers during the weeks-long demonstrations, Blair suggested this wasn’t proper protocol.
The document says that according to Blair, the Ottawa Police Service and the city council were supposed to go to the Ontario Provincial Police to ask for more officers before reaching out to the RCMP, as per rules laid out in the province’s Police Services Act.
But in his testimony at the inquiry, Sloly said Blair never abided by that rule when the minister led the Toronto police.
“It’s a bit confusing because in all my time in the Toronto Police Service when (Blair) was the chief, that was never the case,” Sloly told the commission Monday.
Sloly served as Blair’s deputy in the Toronto Police Service from 2009 to 2015 before he became Ottawa’s chief in 2019. He resigned at the height of the demonstrations on Feb. 15, the day after the federal government declared a public order emergency.
Sloly said that based on his practical experience over decades of policing, he would always go to the nearest police jurisdiction that would be likely to offer help.
The summary of Blair’s interview also suggests that RCMP and Ontario police were reluctant to send more officers without a “proper plan” in place.
But Sloly said the minister never raised that concern with him in the multiple meetings they had at the time.
Blair is expected to appear as a witness before the inquiry in a few weeks.
Theirs is just one of many disputes and contradictions the commission is investigating as it digs into the circumstances that led to the federal government’s decision to use the Emergencies Act.
The act is meant to be invoked 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.
The situation in Ottawa during the protest was a “tinder box ready to explode,” Sloly explained over two days of testimony before the commission.
The streets were blockaded by protesters, creating a traumatic experience for local residents, he said. Ottawa police struggled to keep up with the massive number of investigations underway during what must have felt like a lawless time for residents and businesses, he said.
“It’s one of the reasons why, within our requests, we requested additional investigators, crime analysts. We just couldn’t keep up with the volume of intake, we needed extra dispatchers,” Sloly explained.
“The ability to even to do intake of complaints, followup on complaints, were significantly restrained during my time in office and I suspect for weeks if not months after all the events concluded.”
Sloly said he reported six threats against his own life that he received during the protest, but has not received a followup call from police about whether the threats have been investigated.
The inquiry has so far painted a picture of conflict and confusion within police services and among all levels of government after the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa in late January.
A lawyer for the Ottawa police suggested at the hearing that Sloly was concerned about losing his job while streets were gridlocked by protesters.
“You were pretty concerned that you would lose your job and be blamed for what had happened?” Ottawa police lawyer David Migicovsky asked Sloly.
The former chief emphatically denied the suggestion.
“Absolutely not, sir,” Sloly responded.
“And what you were looking for was to blame somebody else?” Migicovsky pressed.
“Absolutely not, sir,” Sloly said.
In another exchange on Monday, Migicovsky argued that Sloly was looking to blame Steve Bell, who was then his deputy chief, for failing to plan for the protest.
He presented notes from another deputy chief, Patricia Ferguson, that made a similar accusation.
“Advised chief is looking for emails to support I/we purposely left him out of the information look on the demo coming,” said Ferguson’s notes from Feb. 14. The documents were submitted as evidence to the inquiry.
Sloly said that the accusation was “absolutely incorrect,” and that he took offence to the notion.
The former police chief did confirm he took a more direct role in the police response to the protest after he lost some degree of trust in his deputies.
He said he was concerned after his deputies named a new event commander without telling him, but that he never fully lost confidence in them.
The leadership of the officer who was appointed to the role without his knowledge was still under review at the time after a 2021 street party got out of hand following a University of Ottawa football game, Sloly said.
Sloly has been repeatedly accused of creating confusion and dysfunction in the ranks of the Ottawa Police Service during the protest by not abiding by the chain of command.
Sloly said all of those accusations have come second-hand.
“Absolutely everything asserted about because come through a rumour or something that went around the station. That’s the only thing that I’ve heard so far,” he told the commission.
—Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press