Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Police say US-based calls flooded Ottawa’s 911 system, endangering lives

Protesters gather along Wellington Street as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions that has been marked by gridlock and the sound of truck horns reaches its fourteenth day in Ottawa, on Feb. 10.Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said a briefing he received from Canada’s intelligence agencies underscored the continuing trucker protest’s sophisticated tactics, which he said included a flood of US-based phone calls to the local 911 service that nearly crashed the city’s emergency response system.

The two-week-old Ottawa protest against pandemic restrictions shows no sign of ending. About 400 large trucks remain parked on downtown streets near Parliament Hill. Ottawa police have been gradually reducing the number of vehicles through negotiations or arrests, but Chief Sloly said during a Thursday news conference that his force still needs more police resources from the Ontario and federal governments, both of which have already sent officers to the city. He also noted that area tow-truck operators are refusing to help police, causing “a considerable logistical impasse.”

Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters the RCMP would be sending additional reinforcements to Ottawa, and to related protests in Windsor, Ont., and Coutts, Alta. He said “operational sensitivity” prevented him from detailing the precise numbers of officers involved. The City of Ottawa is seeking 1,800 additional personnel.

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Chief Sloly said Wednesday’s flood of nuisance calls to Ottawa’s 911 center was part of an established protest playbook.

“They were coming in from the United States – not exclusively, but significantly from United States-based addresses,” he said. “These are tactics that we’ve seen deployed in other locations across North America and they’re being employed here.”

While the protesters camped out near Parliament Hill have attracted significant attention, public discussion has been increasingly focused on the protest’s organizers and the extensive logistical support systems they have put in place, which include a large operation at a baseball stadium parking lot on Coventry Road, east of downtown.

Some of the people who have spoken publicly on behalf of the protesters have past experience working with the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. For instance, one of them, Daniel Bulford, is a former Mountie who has said he left the national police force over its vaccination mandate. He was part of an RCMP emergency response team, and has said he was responsible for protecting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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Another protester, Thomas Marazzo, spent 18 years with the Canadian Armed Forces. A third, Thomas Quiggin, previously worked for the Canadian Forces, the RCMP and the federal public service and held academic positions focused on national security. More recently, he has been accused by human-rights groups and security experts of contributing to Islamophobia.

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in defense policy, said Mr. Quiggin has become well known as someone who was professionally discredited because of his views. A 2018 media report said YouTube had suspended Mr. Quiggin’s account for violating its terms of service.

Prof. Juneau said people with military experience can bring some expertise to protest organization and logistics. But he said it is not clear how many of those involved in the Ottawa standoff have this type of background.

“Is it a handful of individuals or is it a large number? We don’t know that. But so far I’ve only seen information on a small number, a handful of individuals,” he said.

Prof. Juneau also said there is a risk of exaggerating the credentials of individuals, and that it is important to understand who they are.

When asked if the fact that some of the organizers have military and police experience concerns him, Chief Sloly said Thursday that he had received a briefing from Canada’s national security agencies earlier in the day “that reinforces the very question that you’ve asked.”

“In regards to the capabilities of the overarching demonstration, I’ve been clear from the beginning: This is an unprecedented demonstration,” he said. “It has significant levels of fundraising, co-ordination and communication. They have command centers established here and across the country and beyond this country. This is an entirely sophisticated level of demonstrators. They have the capability to run a strong organization here, provincially and nationally, and we’re seeing that play out in real time.”

At one point Thursday morning, the protest included traffic disruptions around the Ottawa airport. The airport protest dissolved before noon.

Earlier Thursday, Ottawa police said they had negotiated the departure of a dozen trucks from the Coventry Road site, which has become a sophisticated staging area for the main protest.

On Thursday, The Globe visited the site, where rows of pickup trucks were parked, many flying Canadian and US flags.

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Four large trailers parked at the back had slogans on their outsides. One said, “This land is our land.”

Protesters were listening to country music, cooking and eating outside their trucks. Children and dogs were playing, and people were milling about and chatting. There were two saunas in the middle of the parking lot that protested to be using as places to warm up, and there were rows of portable toilets and tents full of supplies.

On a previous visit to the Coventry Road site, The Globe received a tour from two protest organizers. The organizers, who declined to be identified, said that for breakfast the day before the kitchen had cooked 6,000 eggs, along with hash browns.

Tractor-trailers lined the sides of the encampment, and there was a reception center at the entrance.

The inside of the encampment was dominated by a tent containing rows of tables and a fully equipped kitchen that was serving pizza. Other tables were filled with food, toiletries and other supplies. Portable generators were providing electricity.

Other tents were fully stocked with food, toiletries and other necessities that organizers said had been donated by supporters. So much material has arrived that organizers have temporarily stopped accepting such donations.

The facility was offering refueling services; both diesel and gasoline were available.

On Sunday night, Ottawa police raided the Coventry Road site. Their apparent focus was removing fuel.

Some of the truckers who form the core of the protest sleep in their cabs. Others use hotels or rental properties. Some have been put up by people in the area who have opened their homes. A shuttle service connects to homes and businesses in the region, giving them access to showers, washrooms and laundry.

Organizers said a veterinarian and a chiropractor were donating services, and that military veterans were offering medical support. A sign near the saunas offered a phone number, e-mail address and website that people who needed assistance could use to access medical or security services, “trucking operations, food, fuel, shuttles, showers and laundry.”

Mr. Marazzo, the protest spokesperson, said at a news conference on Wednesday evening that demonstrators have no interest in meddling with the mechanisms of government.

The group is preparing for arrests, he added, noting if protesters are taken into custody, they will go peacefully.

“We just want to end the COVID-19 vaccine passports, the masks, the mandates,” he said.

With reports from John Ibbitson, Janice Dickson, Robert Fife

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