Friday, February 03, 2023

"Abandoned to violence" - Ottawa People's Commission first report

The Public Order Emergency Commission report is due this month, but already we have an initial report from the Ottawa People's Commission -- a community initiative set up last June when it looked like official Ottawa just wanted to deep-six the whole miserable FreeDumb Convoy occupation and blockade experience.
I have been following their hearings over the summer and fall, and now they have released their first report - Press Progess summarizes it in this article- "It Was Violent: People's Commission report shines a light on violence, harassment and hate crimes during the 'Freedom Convoy'
The Ottawa commission held 14 hearings and 8 community meetings, and wrote a 72-page report, released in a pdf format on Tuesday. Part One is titled "What We Heard". The second part will be released in March.
The most significant finding is this - as the Ottawa Occupation continued for three weeks last winter, the people of Ottawa were abandoned to violence, harassment and danger by police and by governments. 
Here is the summary:
Residents expected and assumed that they would be protected and assisted by police and other public officials. 
Instead, they felt abandoned. 
They watched as trucks were directed into the downtown or to the parking lot at the City-owned baseball stadium on Coventry Road in Overbrook. 
They looked on as police and bylaw officers took no action to enforce noise, parking and various public safety bylaws or to intervene in or follow up on reports of incidents involving threats, racism and assaults. 
They witnessed friendly exchanges between some members of the police and convoy participants, while their own approaches to police for assistance were often met with indifference or an indication that they could do nothing as they were awaiting orders.
Instead, residents were left to cope with a chaotic and dangerous situation largely by relying on their own resources, mobilizing to support each other through friendships and neighbourhood networks, bolstering public safety through community walks and patrols and even hiring private security, and organizing their own counter-protests to dissuade or block more trucks from entering the downtown core and joining the occupation. Pro-bono lawyers worked with the community to bring a court application for an injunction to halt the blaring of truck horns.
Some of the quotations from the hearings:
“To me, this was not a protest but an occupation. I was negatively affected by the event itself, the rhetoric surrounding it, and by the lack of response to it. I also felt that some exercises in soliciting “balanced” opinions, such as the City audit of the event, were a further way to minimize the impact of people who live downtown, and legitimize the lack of response from the City and province by trying to show that different people experienced the event differently and all opinions on it should be evenly considered. ... I had no choice but to be impacted, as this is where I live. The experience of a participant in this event and someone who had to live through it cannot be treated equally, as they do not impact in the same way.” — Lisa
“Closer to my own office and home, the occupation took the form of angry-looking men in pickup trucks racing around with Canadian flags attached to the back, ISIS-style. For most, this not-unlawful activity probably seemed merely harmless, pointless, and maybe a little idiotic. For me, and I suspect many others, it had a darker character. Those whose property was vandalized for displaying rainbow flags, for example, will know what I mean.trauma on those residents and their children for years to come. The convoy protesters have no right to do this amount of destruction. This should have never been allowed to get out of hand.”— Allan
“Trapped, isolated, abandoned are the words that come to mind.”—Anastasia
The report also describes how frightened Ottawa was:
People were so concerned about the violence that they had to take extraordinary steps to stay safe. 
Journalists covering the convoy hired security guards for protection while they were doing their job; something that seasoned reporters told us they have never before had to do in Canada. Condominium buildings hired security firms to patrol their lobbies and parking areas. Community walks were set up to accompany vulner-able individuals. Many people who had the option to leave downtown Ottawa and stay with family and friends outside or in other parts of the city did so. 
Most people, however, had no choice other than to remain and many described to the OPC that they became vir-tual prisoners in their homes, too fearful to go outside.
More quotations:
“The police stood idly by and did nothing, so the first night I went out to protest alone on the Hill. A group of police officers came up to me and said, quote ‘we know you’re up here trying to speak your mind against all this, but if you stay here any longer, we can’t guarantee your safety’. I told him that I had the right to be there and that I would not be moving away. They casually stood at the corner watching everything happen, and in some cases took photos with the convoy protesters. This blew my mind. This made me feel alone, and reinforced the general community sentiments of residents that OPS had completely lost control of the situation and could no longer properly enforce the law.” — Mat
“It felt so personal that they had traveled across the country, parked in front of our houses, to assault us daily with sound, set off fireworks in our street near houses and windows, traipse around with hate symbols and make us feel afraid to leave our home after dark or at all.”— Rachel
“I did contact police and the response I got was 'sorry, we can’t come to where you are right now, you’re on your own, we don’t have resources to help the people of Ottawa'. I was blown away.”— Troy
"We had no or little help from the police or the City. I complained about the noise to the City of Ottawa By-law on January 30th with no effective action or response from by-law officers – no follow-up. I made calls, filed online reports about the noise, nothing. I reported the trucks parked on Queen blocking the Lyon Street OC Transpo bus and idling their engines. There were gas cans littered on that street. I took photos. Nobody gave a crap. No one came, nothing was done. I asked an officer on patrol to Investigate. She called it in. I waited for an hour outdoors, nothing. I even called the RCMP about the gas cans. Nothing was done.”— Dawn
“At one point, I had to venture out of my apartment to buy food at the grocery on Metcalfe and Lisgar. As I approached Metcalfe, the fumes were choking from the huge trucks and the blaring horns were deafening. There were no police in sight. A group of truckers entered the grocery store and loudly proceeded to make their way through the store. A shopper approached them and asked them to mask. They proceeded to loudly harass her. I went to get the store manager who told me he could not do anything, the police were not responding to any of his calls.”— Judy
“If anything, area police, security agencies, and political officials designated to uphold peace, order and good government failed downtown Ottawa residents. They did not perform well and block the hundreds of vehicles entering downtown to get near Parliament Hill.”— Ken Rubin
Finally, the people of Ottawa mobilized, and it was an inspiration for many:
The OPC heard repeatedly that for many people this remarkable, and often courageous, community mobilization was the only encouraging bright spot during the occupation.The impetus to mobilize and to assist each other came as a direct response to three other dimensions that have been covered earlier in this report: occupation, violence and abandonment.
More quotations:
“For the duration of this occupation, I had my phone on 24 hours a day. I was scrambling to get food to people who were afraid to leave their home.”—Troy
“I need you to understand that Centretown is not a bunch of empty office buildings. It is full of people.”— Amy
“Some of my amazing organizer friends in the Centretown Helpers Discord set up a worker relief fund that raised thousands of dollars for people in the downtown area and they did disperse that money so again we’re seeing grassroots reacting much faster than any level of government did.” — Ro
"[On the Battle of Billings Bridge] I think it was over a thousand people. We stood there all day, it was the most organic thing that I’ve ever participated in. It was not a planned event. There was no one organizer. These were folks who showed up and were at a breaking point with the lack of action by government, by the lack of action and complicity of the police in all of this. We’re taking a stand and saying enough is enough. And I truly feel like that was the domino that knocked everything over, that led to the end of this occupation.” — Andrea
What the commission heard wasn't all negative -- the Ottawa commission also held specific hearings for Convoy supporters and the report also includes what they said:
"When I went to Parliament on the day the truckers arrived, it was loud and these people looked into my eyes and they told me ‘you have value, you do’. ‘You did not deserve to be fired and you did not deserve to be treated like a pariah’. ‘I will stay here until someone comes and talks to us because this is such an injustice that I can’t just sit by’, and I can’t express to you how much this meant to me in that moment after months of just feeling beaten down” — Stephanie
“It’s hard to put into words my experience of participating in the Freedom Convoy in downtown Ottawa. There was this air of hope surrounding us. Finally, people who just wanted freedom of choice were assembling together and felt free for the first time in two years.” — Beth
An interesting contrast to how trapped most downtown Ottawa residents felt, isn't it.
Members of the Commission also wrote about their individual reflections and impressions:

Comissioner Monia Mazigh:
..that day in February, sitting on my living room couch and reading the tweets about protesting, aware of the presence of the trucks, and contemplating the idea of joining them, I felt scared. What if the headscarf that I wear as a visibly Muslim woman was interpreted by some of the truckers as a provocation? What if I was physically or verbally attacked?
After a long hesitation, I decided to stay home. I wasn’t sure I would be safe. Taking a personal and difficult decision, I erased my presence from the public. I became invisible. I deliberately disappeared from the public space.
This idea of “disappearance” from the public space came to haunt me after I heard the story of the schizophrenic man who disappeared from his neighbour’s sight.Whether against his will, for his own safety, or whether, like me, of his own free will, the convoy had made, not only him but literally thousands of people “disappear”, scared to go out, feeling like a hostage in their own home, or deciding to temporarily move to stay with family or friends in other parts of the city.
Commissioner Alex Neve:
It is a sombre realization, to know that thousands of people, only a 15-minute walk from where I live, not only felt but truly were completely abandoned, in the face of what for many of them was the most disruptive, threatening and fearful experience of their lives. Abandoned by police, by government, by public officials and, in a sense, abandoned by society at large.
In some ways, for many people being abandoned was more galling and upsetting than the harms and violence of the convoy itself. It was unfathomable.
...I was so struck by the stark example, described to us by Michelle Hurtubise, the Executive Director of the Centretown Community Health Centre, of the stunning response she received to a compelling request for police assistance. The Centre was carrying out an important COVID vaccination clinic for children between the ages of 5 to 12 on the second Saturday during the occupation. However, as that Saturday morning came around, convoy participants had set up on the street and sidewalk in front of the centre, where they parked their vehicles, lit an open fire with propane tanks nearby, and were drinking beer. Understandably worried about the evident safety and security concerns, with dozens of young children soon to show up, Michelle made a phone call to ask the police to intervene. Her request was inexplicably rebuffed and she was told that because the centre was situated within the red zone, they would not be taking action. The police’s absurd position seemed to be that those who were most likely to need their support were the ones expressly excluded from receiving it, because of geography.
 Abandoned. It was only after Michelle took to her personal twitter account that the police, likely feeling rather embarrassed, did send someone to assist.If dozens of children could be abandoned, who could count on being protected?
Commissioner Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah: 
Looking back at the multitude of stories we heard during the OPC’s first phase, I cannot help but reflect on the many accounts from residents of the hypocrisy they witnessed from decision-makers.
....We heard from Paul Champ, a human rights lawyer whose firm is representing downtown residents in the convoy class action lawsuit. I was shocked at how emotional his account was. I still feel sadness and anger when I look back at it. He told a story about not only local but cross-country mobilization of information and support to respond to the inaction and hypocrisy of City officials. From the submission of heartbreaking stories by Ottawa residents that fueled the urgency to lawyers as far as Alberta volunteering to provide legal research – communities came together in so many different ways to support each other in collectively responding to what was, and wasn’t, happening during the occupation.
What shocked me about his account was what I have personally coined my, “ah-ha” moment: all the work that Paul and his team put into getting an injunction to end the honking was met with vindictiveness from City of Ottawa officials. It showed a further disconnect of City officials with residents that was intentionally driven by those with political power. The City froze Paul’s team out of the initial stages of the legal process and acted in counter-purpose by withholding information. It seemed as if the City, incredibly, felt they were in competition with the community.
Commissioner Leilani Farha: 
The bend-over-backward approach by all orders of government and the police to protect the right of free expression for convoy protesters, which reached absurd heights, stands in stark contrast with the utter failure by governments to ensure that the basic social and economic rights of local residents – particularly marginalized groups – were met. 
This was a complete abdication of governments’ international socio-economic human rights obligations.
Sadly, from my vantage, this is government policy on repeat.
And so, as is often the case in the Canadian context, it was piecemeal, individual acts of charity that filled some of the gaps created by governments failing to meet their human rights obligations to the residents of Ottawa. We heard many stories of how in the vacuum of social support by any level of government, neighbours and friends supported each other, and strangers lent a hand. A volunteer food network was established, to ensure those who couldn’t reach a grocery store had enough to eat; friends and family members outside of the red zone offered those trapped downtown alternative accommodation; resident-led safe-walking groups were established to help people get to appointments and buy supplies.
These acts of kindness restore my sense of ‘friendly Ottawa’. But they do little to restore my confidence in our government officials to do what governments are supposed to: ensure human well-being and basic human rights, especially in a time of crisis.
The report also summarized the Ottawa People's Commission initial findings:
Our conclusion that the people of downtown Ottawa were abandoned by police, government and some politicians in the face of a violent occupation of their neighbourhoods, requiring community level mobilization to address safety concerns and provide basic needs, leads to our overarching assessment that the convoy and the response to the convoy represent a clear human rights failure.
In the end, Ottawa did get the last laugh:

No comments: