A lawyer representing some organizers of the “Freedom Convoy” says police were regularly leaking operational plans and other information to protesters in Ottawa during last winter’s demonstrations.
Keith Wilson testified Wednesday morning at the public inquiry investigating the federal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act in February in an effort to end weeks of protests in the capital.
Wilson said members of the Ottawa police, Ontario Provincial Police and RCMP all leaked information to protesters.
“At all times, there was a high degree of situational awareness of what the operational plans were for the police,” Wilson told reporters after his testimony.
He described a “steady stream of information and leaks coming from all of the different police forces and security agencies from on-duty officers.”
The OPP and RCMP have not responded to requests for comment on Wilson’s allegations.
In a statement, the Ottawa Police Service said it is “not commenting on convoy-related matters at this time, so as to respect the public inquiry underway.”
The Ottawa police had previously confirmed that they moved to disciplinary action against one officer for contributing to the Freedom Convoy with a financial donation.
And the inquiry also previously heard that an Ottawa police constable who was suspended for not being vaccinated kept an encrypted police radio and allegedly shared information with protesters.
Ottawa police have not confirmed any disciplinary action against that officer.
Throughout the protests, police faced criticism for standing by as protesters lit fires, set off fireworks and stockpiled food and fuel on downtown streets.
Wilson was brought in to give legal advice to the demonstrators in early February. He said he never imagined the federal government would use force against “non-violent, peaceful Canadians” when he encouraged protesters to remain in Ottawa after the Liberals invoked the Emergencies Act last winter.
After Ottawa brought in the emergency powers Feb. 14, police warned the protesters, who were demonstrating against the federal government and COVID-19 mandates, that they would need to leave downtown Ottawa. Several hundred vehicles had been blocking the streets in front of Parliament Hill since late January.
But Wilson and his team wrote to interim Ottawa police Chief Steve Bell to say that in his opinion, police did not have the power to prevent a peaceful protest in the downtown core.
The message from police and others “that any Canadian citizen was no longer allowed to walk in downtown Ottawa or hold a sign in front of their Parliament was not legally accurate and was against the Charter,” Wilson testified Wednesday.
At that point, “it was obvious” police were planning some kind of operation, he said.
On Feb. 15, one of the convoy’s organizers, Chris Barber, invited Wilson to appear in a TikTok video with him encouraging protesters to stay in the core.
“This emergency order from the federal government does not restrict Canadians’ rights of peaceful assembly,” Wilson said in the video, which was entered into evidence at the commission.
He told viewers it looked like police were “gearing up,” but one way to stop that from happening was for Canadians to “come to Ottawa as soon as you can get here and stand with the truckers.”
A few days later, on Feb. 18, police launched a major operation to arrest and clear protesters out of the core.
During his testimony, Wilson was asked whether he was concerned he was encouraging demonstrators to put their own safety at risk in the police operation.
“I’m a Canadian and I never imagined that our government, our federal government would use that level of force against non-violent, peaceful Canadians,” he said.
Evidence tabled with the commission shows the protesters also received advice from another lawyer, Sayeh Hassan. She told them that people who didn’t comply with police limiting their right to protest “could be arrested.”
But a convoy spokesperson, Tom Marazzo, told the commission Wednesday that he took Wilson at his word that they were allowed to be downtown despite the police warnings.
A former military captain and computer sciences teacher who lost his job because of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Marazzo had been a prominent figure earlier in the protest, appearing at several press conferences and livestreams to say that protesters wouldn’t leave “until the job is done.”
The decision to invoke the Emergencies Act ultimately came after weeks of what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an “illegal occupation” of downtown Ottawa, and mounting tales of frustration from people living in the area, many of whom were critical of the police response.
The commission is tasked with determining whether the government was justified in triggering the never-before-used act, which became law in 1988. It is holding public hearings in Ottawa until Nov. 25.
Commissioner Justice Paul Rouleau repeated a line of inquiry he had used with other witnesses and asked Wilson whether there were ever discussions about how to allow the protest to continue lawfully off of Ottawa’s streets.
Wilson said no one with any police service offered that kind of option, and the protest organizers never asked.
“We were always faced with this zero-sum with the police liaisons,” he said.
Wilson said the only feasible exit strategy that he could see was a deal with city officials to move trucks out of residential areas and either out to a rural area or onto the street directly in front of Parliament Hill.
He told the commission that he believed if the truck drivers could show goodwill by moving the trucks, federal ministers might agree to meet with the protesters about their concerns.
The loose group of organizers even prepared a document laying out their demands for such a meeting.
More than 100 vehicles moved out of the residential area and 23 moved onto Wellington Street near Parliament before the deal between city officials and the protest organizers fell apart, he said.
Getting vehicles to move around was difficult, he testified, because the movement was not centralized. He said controlling the entire group of protesters was “impossible.”
In one instance, Wilson said that he and his clients tried to get an independent group of truck drivers to clear an intersection east of downtown. But they were swarmed by protesters who misunderstood what was happening.
In a video shown in the hearing, a huge group of protesters could be seen blocking police and singing “O Canada.” As the police left, one demonstrator shouted, “hold the line,” a phrase encouraging protesters to stay downtown despite warnings from police.
It wasn’t until Feb. 19, when most of the protest organizers had been arrested, that convoy spokesperson Marazzo called for people to leave.
He told the commission he was concerned about protesters’ safety after seeing “the level of violence that police brought” to their operation. He said there was no point in staying after it became clear that protesters wouldn’t be able to repel police.
“I was so disgusted,” Marazzo said. “My advice to everybody was to depart the City of Ottawa and to peacefully withdraw.”
—Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press