Despite receiving several early warnings, former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly says that — even in “hindsight” — he doesn’t think the intelligence he was getting before the protest convoy rolled into town suggested that protesters would dig in and remain.
“To this day, even with the benefit of hindsight, I do not have any clear impression or saw any clear conclusions that we were going to have anything more than what I was being briefed on by my team,” he said during his highly anticipated appearance before the Emergencies Act inquiry on Friday.
The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) based its operational plans on the assumption that protesters would stay in Ottawa for only one week. Instead, they stayed for nearly three weeks and left only after one of the largest police operations in Canadian history.
Sloly, who resigned a day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, said it wasn’t long after the trucks and protesters rolled into Ottawa that he realized how wrong that planning was.
“What we saw in violation of our community’s rights, our business community’s rights, the level of unlawfulness and assaultiveness in the broadest sense of that term, including the literal sense of that term, was not what we expected and was overwhelming,” he said.
WATCH | Was the Liberal government’s use of the Emergencies Act justified?
“It was a tinder box waiting to explode. It was not a family festival.”
Sloly has come under intense criticism over his actions during the convoy protest against COVID-19 measures — a protest that gridlocked Ottawa for more than three weeks last winter. The Public Order Emergency Commission inquiry is reviewing the federal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to end the protest.
The commission has seen reports and heard testimony indicating police had advance warning that some protesters were bent on staying in the capital until all vaccine mandates were repealed or a new government was installed.
WATCH | Sloly says ‘no clear conclusions’ that protests would differ from intelligence
Sloly told the commission he first learned a crowd of protesters was travelling to Ottawa back on Jan. 13, when he received a report on the “Freedom Convoy” from Project Hendon, an intelligence sharing network led by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).
Sloly said he recalls forwarding that report to deputies. An email chain confirming that claim has not been entered into evidence.
The OPP continued to send the Ottawa police Hendon reports warning of “fringe ideologies” active within the protest movement and noting that organizers did not have an exit strategy to end the protest.
That report said the “intent appears to be to remain in Ottawa until all COVID-19-related mandates and restrictions are lifted.”
“A line in one report, unless you have read the entire report, can be misleading,” said Sloly Friday. “One report, unless you have read all of the reports, could be misleading.”
Sloly has sat for four interviews with the commission’s lawyers since late August. His most recent interview was on Oct. 5. A summary of what he said in those interviews was tabled as evidence at the inquiry earlier this week.
During one of Sloly’s interviews, the commission’s lawyers showed him a Jan. 26 Project Hendon report warning that individuals tied to the protest already had shown a disregard for the the law and had access to weapons.
Sloly responded that such risks could materialize at most major events.
A Jan. 28 OPP intelligence report shared with Sloly says that “available information indicates that the protesters plan to remain in Ottawa at least” until Feb. 4.
Sloly told the commission lawyers that he understood that to mean the protest would take place primarily over one weekend, with a small group remaining afterwards — perhaps in a manageable “tent city.”
While the briefings pointed out that supporters were being supplied with donations of cash, food and water, Sloly said that didn’t suggest this event would be unlike other major protests.
Sloly was also forwarded a Jan. 21 email from Ottawa Police Sgt. Sean Kay that said the goal of the convoy was to remain in Ottawa until the pandemic restrictions were repealed.
Sloly said that if Kay had those concerns, he would have expected him to inform his supervisors, who should have made changes to the operational plan.
“If there are these warnings signs, and as we progress towards the weekend these warnings signals get stronger and stronger, shouldn’t the OPS have known what was coming?” asked commission lawyer Frank Au.
“To answer your question, no,” said Sloly.
“My sense from the briefings that I was getting was that that process was in place and it was functioning sufficiently.”
Internal note to officers said protesters would ‘likely’ stay
While the OPS was signalling to the city and the public that the protests would last one weekend, a memo was sent to officers on Jan. 24 restricting their discretionary time-off to prepare for the Freedom Convoy’s arrival.
It stated that while “the event has been scheduled for one day, it is highly likely that many participants will not leave the city for an undetermined amount of time.”
Asked about the wording of that memo, Sloly “indicated that the language of the excerpt was not meant to be exact,” says the summary.
WATCH | Sloly expected more support when ‘signals’ got stronger that Ottawa protesters weren’t leaving
Sloly said he realized only a few hours into the first Saturday of the protest — Jan. 29 — that his plans had gone up in smoke.
“The nine o’clock briefing that I received on the Saturday morning was still talking about a weekend event,” he told the
“By 11 o’clock we had a significantly embedded [protest], clearly beginning to occupy and in some cases fortify elements of Wellington Street, the parliamentary district and other parts of our downtown.”
WATCH | ‘You’ve touched on one of my frustrations’ — Sloly reacts when asked why routes into Ottawa weren’t closed off
Sloly said that’s when the protest turned into an unlawful gathering.
“My view is it was unlawful the moment a law was broken in relation to the events,” he said. “And so for me, that was clearly the Saturday morning.”
His former colleague Insp. Russell Lucas, who served as incident commander for the OPS during the protest, told the commission earlier this week that his team was “drinking from the firehose.”
Sloly becomes emotional talking about officers
“However many convoys there were, that’s how many firehoses were coming,” said Sloly on Friday.
“Add 10 more firehoses for all the other odds and sods that showed up, put three more firehoses in for the minus 35 degree temperature, four or five more for the level of fatigue that our officers already had going into those events, 43 more firehoses for the level of public trust in policing … and I think that’s a more accurate assessment of the amount of water we were taking on at that point.”
Sloly said that by Feb. 1, a Canadian Armed Forces officer had told him the Freedom Convoy “had elements of an insurgency.”
Lack of contingency plan criticized
The commission has heard from witnesses criticizing the OPS’s plan leading into the first weekend and the lack of a plan to cope with protesters if they refused to leave.
On Thursday, the commission heard from the head of the Ontario Provincial Police, who said he thought the OPS’s operational plan would bar the trucks from the parliamentary precinct and provide for buses and shuttles to allow protesters to access the downtown area.
Sloly told the commission in his interviews that he never received any written or verbal communications from any officers suggesting that the OPS plan to allow the Freedom Convoy to enter downtown Ottawa was wrongheaded.
When asked why the trucks and other vehicles were allowed to block streets, Sloly 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.
Last week, OPS Deputy Chief Trish Ferguson said Ottawa police still didn’t have a new plan by Feb. 4 — a week after protesters and their vehicles had first rolled into the city — because the force was “putting out fires” and dealing with staffing.
“I think we were floundering a little bit in terms of our staffing, in terms of our ability to really take stock of what was going on and then move forward and come up with a plan to get out of it,” she said.
“We lost some time there.”
Another commission lawyer, Natalia Rodriguez, asked Sloly why trucks were still allowed to drive downtown and park on the second weekend if he considered it an unlawful protest.
“You’ve touched on one of my frustrations,” he said.
“There is clear documentation of me saying, ‘Are we ready to go? Have we thought about all things we need to do? Have we considered whether we’re going to be closing more roads?'”
Sloly becomes emotional talking about officers
The former chief became emotional when Au asked him how his officers coped with the situation early on.
After a long pause to collect himself, Sloly said he was grateful to his team.
“It was too cold and it was too much. But they did their very best,” he said, tearing up.
“They should be understood.”
Sloly said media coverage of the protest and the police response had a “crushing” effect on his members.
“By the end of the weekend, it had become a global story that mainstream media was following and none of it was portraying, in any way accurate, the hard work of the men and women of the Ottawa police service and the partner agencies that stood with us,” he said.
“None of it to this day.”
WATCH | Former Ottawa police chief gets emotional speaking about law enforcement efforts during truck convoy
Sloly said that before the convoy protest landed, the OPS was struggling with low morale and a lack of public trust, especially within racialized and marginalized communities within Ottawa.
“OPS was not functioning optimally, was not well resourced, and its leadership was stretched at the time the Freedom Convoy arrived,” says Sloly’s witness summary.
Sloly calls claims he was against engagement tactics ‘a lie’
Multiple witnesses so far have questioned the policing strategy used before the Emergencies Act was invoked.
Some officers said Sloly was not inclined to use PLTs — a police acronym meaning either police or provincial liaison teams. Those units are responsible for the front-facing work during demonstrations and are meant to coordinate with organizers, build relationships and make sure protests run smoothly.
WATCH | Sloly says perception that he is an ‘ultra enforcement-driven focused leader’ is false
Sloly pushed back against an emerging narrative suggesting he favoured hard enforcement over engagement.
“This concept of Peter Sloly as being some sort of ultra enforcement-driven focused leader is a narrative someone has constructed to attack my character but has no resemblance to my actual record in policing,” Sloly said.
At the start of the week, then-deputy OPS chief Steve Bell told the commission inquiry the chief “wanted quick wins” and that Sloly preferred enforcement “unless PLT could convince protesters to leave.”
“You need quick wins,” said Sloly on Friday. “It builds morale and confidence.”
“What unfortunately has happened is that has been tied by someone or some people, for some reason unknown to me, to mean that PLT could not or should not be used… or worse, that somehow I had to approve every single PLT action, otherwise it could not occur. And that is a complete fabrication and a lie.”
Relationship with other agencies was tense: OPP
Commissioner Paul Rouleau already has heard testimony describing a tense and sometimes distrustful relationship between Sloly and the OPP during the protest.
“Overall the tone, I would say, was very antagonistic, it was disrespectful,” retired OPP superintendent Carson Pardy said last week.
During his own testimony, Sloly did not deny the meetings with the OPP were sometimes tense and contentious when it came to requests for more resources.
WATCH | ‘You could feel the tension’: Retired OPP chief superintendent on Sloly
“I needed to be very clear on behalf of my service and my city,” he said.
Pardy said that while Sloly was asking for backup, the OPP was frustrated with the lack of a concrete plan.
“You need to know what these people are going to be doing when they get there, right down to where they stay and who’s feeding them,” Pardy told the commission.
“You need those basics in place. None of that was in place.”
Another OPP officer, Supt. Craig Abrams, said he was in a meeting where Sloly told his staff he would ask for double the number of officers they thought they needed.
The next day, Sloly made public a request for 1,800 officers from other police agencies.
“I only said that I was suspicious how they could come up with a number like that, and certainly the suggestion that that number would be doubled,” Abrams said during cross-examination by Sloly’s lawyer Tom Curry last week.
WATCH | Sloly says he never asked for things he ‘did not need’
Sloly said he never asked for resources he did not need.
“I had never, never once before in my entire career been asked to provide a fully detailed plan with sub plans laid out — timing and exact details and logistics as to where people were going to sleep before, what uniforms they should bring — before we sent out a request in good faith to good police partners [to] say, ‘We got something big, can you help us yes or no,'” he said.
Sloly told the commission one of his regrets is that a comment he made during the protest — that “there may not be a police solution to this demonstration” — was taken by many as a sign that the OPS was giving up.
He said he meant that Ottawa police couldn’t bring an end to this situation by themselves.
WATCH | Sloly explains ‘no policing solution’ statement at inquiry
On Feb. 2, he said, he met with Mayor Jim Watson to make that case.
Notes of that meeting, cited in the interview, said Sloly “advised that all options on the table [need] to consider the ‘political option.'”
“It is not my legal responsibility to end a demonstration – it is my legal responsibility to provide adequate and effective policing to serve and protect the city/citizens,” say the meeting notes.
WATCH | Pictures of police officers posing with protesters were ‘extremely problematic’: Sloly
Sloly told the commission he feels the situation in Ottawa exposed structural and resource deficits related to national security, including an “excessive focus on Islamist extremism at the expense of other threats in Canada’s national security.”
“Sloly does not believe that [the Ottawa Police Service] could have done anything materially differently on a big-picture level given the unprecedented national security crisis that the OPS was faced with,” says the summary of Sloly’s witness interview.
“There were structural problems in national security, police and justice that long predated the Convoy events and were badly exposed during this paradigm shifting and unprecedented event.”
Sloly will be cross-examined on Monday.