In remarkably short order, the unprecedented experience of the Ottawa Convoy of February 2022 has been well studied and there are extensive recommendations for change now on the public record.
The Public Order Emergency Commission, which was convened because of the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act and was presided over by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Paul Rouleau, was undoubtedly the most extensive. After examining more than 85,000 documents, interviewing 139 individuals, receiving testimony from 76 witnesses and hearing from 50 experts, Commissioner Rouleau’s five-volume report was released in February 2023.
The City Of Ottawa’s Auditor General carried out three reviews and has released her three reports on how the City of Ottawa, the Ottawa Police Service and the Ottawa Police Services Board responded to the convoy.
Yet to come is the final report from Parliament’s Special Joint Committee on the Declaration of Emergency, made up of representatives of both the Senate and the House of Commons from across party lines. That report will likely be released before the summer recess.
All of those reviews have been informative. They have documented ineptitude, disinterest, ill-preparedness, turf battles, personality conflicts, confusion, lack of coordination, and other dysfunctions. The resulting recommendations for reform, directed to the government and police, must be taken seriously.
But they also fall short of telling the whole story and therefore miss some of the most important lessons. That is because none prioritized hearing from the communities that bore the brunt of the convoy’s impact firsthand: the residents, workers and business owners of central Ottawa.
Recognizing that there was likely to be little opportunity to share their experience and insights in the official reviews that were taking place, community members in downtown Ottawa, therefore, took matters in hand and established their own forum for doing so. The Ottawa People’s Commission on the Convoy Occupation (OPCCO) was launched in June 2022 and began holding hearings in September 2022. I had the honour – along with three accomplished human rights and community advocates, Leilani Farha, Monia Mazigh and Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah – to serve as one of the four commissioners. Having heard from over 200 residents in hearings, community consultations and written submissions, we issued our final report in two parts, What we heard on January 30, and After the Occupation: Change on April 4, 2023.
Not surprisingly, when that community perspective (which did, notably, include a minority of people who supported the convoy) is given careful consideration, a broader and deeper set of concerns emerge, which point to shortcomings that existed long before the convoy’s arrival, and have certainly not been alleviated in its aftermath. One of the most apparent failures was the stark absence of human rights in municipal affairs.
While there was a prevailing narrative during the convoy that it was ‘mainly peaceful’ and dominated by bouncy castles, hot tubs and barbeques, there is no doubt that for downtown communities, the convoy’s impact was replete with human rights abuses by participants and human rights violations on the part of government and police.
People were physically assaulted, including having masks ripped masks from their faces. The torment of unrelenting truck horns amounted to sound torture. The rights of local First Nations and of other Indigenous Peoples in the national capital region were disregarded. Vile flags, banners, posters, threats and taunts full of racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, antisemitic, Islamophobic and white supremacist hate were on full display. Freedom of movement was blocked, with a particularly devastating impact on people with disabilities and older people. Staff at local businesses, many of whom were low-wage workers, were laid off because shops and restaurants were closed. And an atmosphere of fear and menace kept many people virtually imprisoned in their homes, unable or too terrified to go outside. All of this and more amounts to human rights abuses.
The human rights failure by no means ends with the harms carried out by convoy participants. In some ways, even more despairing for people was that the police and the government utterly abandoned them to cope with the human rights abuses on their own. Parking, noise, idling and public safety bylaws were not enforced, and criminal charges were not laid out of worry that to do so would provoke convoy participants. Trucks were welcomed into the downtown core and essentially given free rein. Critical services, such as Para Transpo and vital social programs for people with disabilities and other vulnerable community members, were suspended or dramatically scaled back, even though they were essential for meeting people’s basic needs. People were not given more meaningful information about what was happening, making it difficult to make informed decisions about their safety. All of this and more amounts to human rights violations.
That leads to the question: how could that be? How could it be that policies were being interpreted, priorities set, and decisions taken with such seeming disregard or lack of awareness of crucial human rights consequences?
That leads to the realization that human rights are not a central consideration for municipal affairs in the City of Ottawa. The city is of course subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom as well as the Ontario Human Rights Code; and is also bound by the country’s international human rights obligations. But it has not elaborated its own human rights framework, responsive to the realities of Ottawa and backed up by bodies and processes designed to make human rights stick in the city.
Many of our recommendations address the absence of human rights in Ottawa. That includes drafting a Human Rights Charter for the city and establishing a municipal human rights commission or other body empowered to enforce those rights. We need a human rights action plan for the city, kept current through regular updates. Ottawa (and Ontario) should adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. More must be done to ensure that the human rights needs of vulnerable community members are well identified and thus better addressed during crises. And the federal, provincial and municipal governments have to put aside their differences and better coordinate their efforts to uphold human rights.
Everyone who shared their views with the OPCCO made it clear that they strongly believe in the right to protest, particularly in the heart of the nation’s capital. They rightly point out, however, that their rights must also be upheld, especially in challenging times when violence, hate and other harms are prevalent.
The answer does not lie in choosing protesters’ rights over community members’ rights. Instead, the answer lies in upholding everyone’s rights. However, we only get there if we have laid the ground in advance. Now is the time for Ottawa to get its house in order when it comes to human rights; before the next convoy rolls into town.