Police response to ongoing Canadian convoy protests questioned, criticized

By CityNews Staff

Indigenous and environmental activists are closely watching how officers treat convoy protesters blocking the roads in Ottawa and a border crossing in Alberta — saying there’s a double standard in police enforcement depending on what the demonstration is about.

On Tuesday evening, the Ottawa Police Service announced that two arrests have been made; one for mischief and one for carrying a weapon to a public meeting.

On Jan. 29th, a man caused mischief to property. He was not arrested at the time in order to avoid a larger confrontation,” says a statement from police.

“We want to be very clear, both for the current demonstrations and any planned demonstrations: Illegal activity will not be tolerated. There will be consequences for anyone contravening City By-laws, Highway Traffic Act and Criminal Code legislation.”

There are 13 criminal investigations underway. There have been eight reports to a hotline launched to respond to hate-motivated instances, three of which are under investigation.

In Ottawa, crowds have thinned but some members of the so-called ‘freedom convoy’ remain. What was originally described as a demonstration against vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers has caused days-long disruptions in the nation’s capital. The presence of far-right extremist groups, display of swastikas, comparisons of COVID-19 measures to the Holocaust, desecration of monuments, and racist impersonations of Indigenous ceremony have drawn widespread condemnation. Travel to and from the downtown core has been completely paralyzed since Friday evening. Residents, non-profits and business owners have spoken out about how unsafe they feel.

“We shut down traffic in the core, facilitated peaceful protests, albeit unlawful, but peaceful protest in order to find that balance between the ability for people to exercise their Charter rights and demonstrate in the nation’s capital around incidents and issues that were national, provincial, and local in nature,” he said.

“We’ve done that on countless occasions, literally hundreds of times a year in my two years here as chief of police.”

But he didn’t respond to a direct question about the response to a 2020 protest when 12 people were arrested and charged with mischief. One of the groups that organized the protest was the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition. Formed in 2016, the group came together after Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian, was killed during an interaction with police. The 2020 protest began on the evening of Nov. 19. Demonstrators were demanding a freeze to the city’s police budget, and calling an end to systemic racism in policing, education, health, and housing.

Arrests were made within 36 hours.

In Alberta, a blockade of the Canada-U.S. border entered its fourth day before the RCMP took enforcement action Tuesday. Premier Jason Kenney said he was made aware of reports that “people aligned with the protesters” were “assaulting RCMP officers, including in one instance trying to ram members of the RCMP, later leading to a collision with a civilian vehicle in the area.” The RCMP has not announced any arrests.

Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor, and activist Pam Palmater says blockades by Indigenous groups that have been deemed illegal, like the Alberta convoy protest, have typically faced harsher, swifter enforcement.

“There is a marked difference, it’s literally night and day,” she said.

She stresses that those drawing attention to the contrast are not encouraging a violent crackdown on the convoys.

“Nobody in the Indigenous community or any other environmental group has said, ‘We want the police to do to you what they’ve done to us.” 

However, she says the protests in Ottawa represent more of a public safety threat than those of blockades set up in B.C. by Indigenous and environmental activists

“You’ve got this scenario where there’s actual criminality, there’s no organization, it’s terribly unsafe — nurses and paramedics aren’t safe, shelter residents aren’t safe, local residents aren’t safe,” Palmater says.

“What this has shown is their failure to act. Their statement saying, ‘We don’t want to instigate, we don’t want to even write tickets or tow trucks’ — it shows that mob rules. Angry white mobs can, and will, and have taken over cities — and the police are saying that there’s nothing that they can do. That’s a huge concern for us as Canadians.”

One example Palmater and others use is the dozens of arrests made on Wet’suwet’en territory in the last few years. The RCMP’s action in Northern B.C. has sparked solidarity protests and rail blockades nation-wide. Those arrests were made as police enforced an injunction granted to Coastal GasLink by the B.C. Supreme Court. There is no court order currently in place in either Ottawa or at the Alberta border.

Still, a UBC researcher of social movements says there are other reasons why different protests are met with different responses from law enforcement.

“The level of repression that we see at protests is really a function of typically three different things. It’s based on the assessment of threat, on the political ideology of the protest and protesters, as well as the racial characteristics of the protest,” Max Chewinski, a PhD candidate in the department of sociology, said.

Racialized, left-leaning groups, and demonstrations impacting the economy are generally met with more force, he continues.

While Chewinski points to research from the U.S. that shows police are more likely to use force on Black protesters, Palmater says the same is true of the “blatant racism” Indigenous people experience in Canada.

“In the justice system in general, Indigenous peoples are racially targeted by police, they’re treated differentially, they’re discriminated against. We know that,” she said..

“What we want to do here is say that these are rogue incidents — it’s just one bad officer, it’s one bad protester, when in fact we’ve got significant, systemic racism across the country.”

‘We can not really compare apples and oranges’: security expert
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer at CSIS, says the decisions on how to respond vary based on specific circumstances. For example, he says it’s possible the blockade in Coutts isn’t being met with the same urgency as blockades of busy, city streets because it does not block off emergency or commuter routes, and so does not pose the same risk or create the same level of disruption.

“Any protest, any situation is a situation on its own, and the situation needs to be evaluated. And there are factors that exist in one case that don’t exist in the next one,” he said.

“We cannot really compare apples and oranges with one another because every protest is a different situation.”

Sloly also says people should not be comparing what is happening in Ottawa with previous protests in that city or with protests in other places.

“Every demonstration has certain, similar characteristics, every demonstration is unique. This demonstration is not only unique but unprecedented.”

With files from HanaMae Nassar and Greg Bowman

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