Dispatch from the Ottawa Front: Sloly is telling you all he's in trouble. Who's listening?
The scale of Ottawa's defeat is a jarring and continuing indictment of the capacity of the Canadian state, and the state must reverse this situation, decisively.
By: Matt Gurney
The dateline above is a bit of a stretch. This is actually being written at, perhaps ironically, a truck stop just outside Ottawa. I am returning to Toronto after another day in the capital, and I stopped here to eat and gather my notes for what will eventually be two separate dispatches. The first ran on Tuesday, and this one will go out shortly after I return to Toronto, gather my notes, do some laundry and try to wrap up what I've seen over the past few days into something coherent. This one you’re reading now is also where I will recount the strangest, most concerning incident I experienced in Ottawa — one that explains why I think the police have been so reluctant to act.
They know what they're up against, to be frank. Most of us don't. And at least one person is trying to tell us.
At the start of this week, I spent two days among the protesters in downtown Ottawa, wandering the lines of trucks on Wellington, on Kent, and the other roads all around Parliament Hill. I've tried to convey for readers what it's like to be there — at least, what it's been like for me to be there. This is a complicated protest and a complicated event. It has layers.
Are there good, frustrated people just trying to be heard in the crowd? Yes. Are there bad people in the crowd, including some who've waved hate symbols and harassed or attacked others? Yes. Are there people taking careful care of the roads, sweeping up trash and shovelling ice and snow off the sidewalk? Yes. Are there hard men milling about, keeping a wary eye on anyone who seems out of place? Yes. Is it a place where some people are having good-natured fun? Yes. Is it a place some other people would rightly be afraid to go? Yes. And so on.
But it's even more complicated than it looks. And Ottawa Police Services chief Peter Sloly wants you to know that.
Sloly is in a tough spot. I don't honestly know the backstory of the how and why the Ottawa protest was allowed to settle into the downtown core the way it did. It was obviously a massive intelligence and planning failure, but what kind of failure? And whose? Did they not have enough information? Bad information? Did they have good information that, for whatever reason, they didn’t accept or trust? That's not the sort of thing you can discover wandering the site. But I can tell you that some of the protesters themselves are surprised by how easy it was for them to set up shop.
I have the terrible feeling, and I've spoken with five separate sources in government roles or in adjacent security positions who all confirmed this, that Sloly is one of the damn few people in Ottawa who understands the situation he's in, and he's trying to get everyone else to notice, or at least to catch up to his understanding. My sources, alas, seem to think that most others involved in decision-making are only just now starting to realize the enormity of the challenge in the capital. Sloly figured it out last week.
The chief is very political. I say that with no disrespect. Becoming the chief of a major police force isn't something that happens because you catch the most bad guys. It happens because you're good at working your way up through the power structures of a very particular institution. Sloly talks like a politician. But if you listen closely, and if you follow along across his briefings, you start to see a theme. From the moment he first mentioned that there might not be a policing solution to this protest, and hinted that we need the armed forces, he's been signalling to the public that Ottawa, as a city, has lost control of itself. That's a blunt description, but as I noted in a Twitter thread after a pretty remarkably stark Ottawa Police Services Board meeting on the weekend, Sloly was clear: the city needs to be rescued. It has lost control, it is outnumbered, and it cannot fix this problem with the resources on hand.
Rescued from what? The crowd around Parliament Hill is mostly — not entirely, but mostly — peaceful. I grant that; I've seen it with my own eyes. And a few minutes' walk from those sites, now that the horns have been largely silenced by a court order, the city feels quite normal. The idea that Ottawa needs rescuing may seem absurd, but it's not. The longer this goes on, the harder it will become to convince the protesters to leave, and the harder it will be to stop others from joining in. The Ambassador Bridge, which links Windsor to Detroit, is now blocked. Would that have happened if Ottawa had been cleared quickly and decisively?
The inaction that has so infuriated Ottawans, and the very visible displays of police ineffectiveness as protesters fuel trucks from jerrycans despite the city’s stated plan to stop such activity, cannot be easily explained, and no doubt has multiple contributing causes. Some is probably simply political expediency, with all the various leaders wanting someone else to take the blame in case it goes badly (which it likely will). Some is probably just necessary delay while plans are made and logistics arranged. And then there’s just the good, old-fashioned problem of our expectations being a problem, as I’ve written about here. Canadian officials are struggling to realize just how deep in the muck they are, despite what seems like increasingly exasperated efforts by Sloly (and I believe a few others) to get them caught up to the present. I don't think most of our leaders are there yet.
Also, there’s this: there's another element of the protest that's nothing at all like a festival.
You may have heard reports of a secondary encampment that is well removed from the main protest sites around Parliament Hill. I certainly had. It has been described in different reports as either a logistics area or some kind of staging ground for protesters. It is a parking lot outside of a baseball diamond, RCGT Park, right next to a large Marriott hotel, and though not far from Parliament, it’s well removed from the main sites. Sending protesters to the parking lot was actually the city's idea; it had directed some trucks there earlier in the protest. After the city had moved an encampment in Confederation Park, some of the people there, as well as supplies, vehicles, and a shack, were relocated to the parking lot at RCGT Park. The largest police enforcement action to date, a raid to confiscate fuel, was conducted at this site, too.
Before I came to Ottawa, I spoke with a few people who were sympathetic to the protest: I was advised to stay away from this secondary encampment site, or at least to approach it with caution. I wasn’t feeling particularly heroic on Tuesday, but I figured it wouldn’t make sense to travel all the way from Toronto and then ignore one of the main sites. I drove over, parked my car nearby and walked the rest of the way to the parking lot.
It was clear well before I even arrived that this was something different. There was absolutely no visible police presence. Not a single uniformed officer or marked cruiser. (Note my careful phrasing there: I have no doubt this place is under watch. Just not overtly.) This site, for lack of a better term, has been fortified. There are many trucks parked in the parking lot, but some of them have been arranged to form outer walls. These walls have been augmented with wooden sawhorses and what looked to me to be stacked pallets of some kind. There was an entrance with a tent marked Reception (see photo, below). I wish I could give you a better description of the site, or tell you what was inside, but as soon as I began to approach it on foot, someone very quickly fell into step behind me. A series of others, four or five, met me before I made it to the reception tent. We chatted briefly, and I got the distinct impression that it would be way, way better for me to be somewhere else. I left.
They did not threaten me. Everybody was very polite and all smiles. But it was extremely clear to me that my presence was unwelcome. It was also clear to me that these people were organized. This is wildly different from the sites closer to Parliament. As I have written in the earlier dispatches, during the daytime, it’s something of a festival atmosphere along Wellington. At night, it is more grim and much more tense, but I still had no concerns or issues walking through the entire area. This encampment near the stadium?
That was something else.
Later that day, by chance, I found out that a friend of mine had been in town and had decided to go check it out for herself. She told me that she was able to get inside by slipping in with a larger group. Once she started taking pictures, she immediately began to be followed, and she was tailed until she left shortly thereafter. She wasn’t harmed or threatened, and agreed with my description of the residents as organized, polite, and very clear in their desire for you to leave. She had a much better view of the entire area, and reports that the perimeter was pretty secure. Where it wasn't, she said, there were small groups standing on guard. Her impression matched my own entirely: this group is disciplined, organized and on alert for outsiders.
My encounter at the site intrigued me. I made some calls. My sources on the ground are pretty good in the sense of federal politics, but not great in terms of the local governance. Still, each call I made went similarly: the police are very much aware of the site, and they are very worried about the presence of a hard-right-wing, organized faction that isn't there to protest mandates and vaccine passports, but to directly create conflict with the government. This hard-right element probably includes some non-Canadians, here for the party. The broader complaints of the protesters are a cover for the group seeking open conflict. Most of the convoy protesters aren’t part of this smaller, nastier group, nor linked to it in any overt way. Many of them will think any concern about it at all is just some MSM lamestream media conspiracy.
My government and security sources do not agree. What’s happening in Ottawa, they were clear, is two separate events happening in tandem: there is a broadly non-violent (to date) group of Canadians with assorted COVID-related gripes, ranging from the somewhat justified to totally frickin’ insane. But that larger group, which has knocked Ottawa and too many of our leaders into what my colleague Jen Gerson so perfectly described as “stun-fucked stasis,” is now providing a kind of (mostly) unwitting cover to a cadre of seasoned street brawlers whose primary goal is to further erode the legitimacy of the state — not just the city of Ottawa, or Ontario or Canada, but of democracies generally.
Some of them are ideologues, others just grifters, but they’re real, and they’re in Ottawa. Maybe not in that parking lot. I certainly didn’t get the chance to take any names. But local officials know they’re out and about, and are worried that any move they make will trigger an incident that can easily result in dead cops, dead truckers and delighted far-right agitators.
And that’s what has Sloly worried, my sources tell me. Angry, disillusioned truckers can be talked down eventually, even if it takes a long time. The police know how to handle that. But there is another element here — smaller, hard to find, but real, which is why Sloly has been referring to the intelligence he’s seen, and asking for help, and saying he wants the military. Yes, yes, some of that is undoubtedly him wanting someone else to step up and take some of the heat. Some of it is seems rooted in a very real concern that what’s unfolding in Ottawa is something our leaders haven’t considered before, and don’t know how to handle, even if they accept it’s real, which seems to be a work in progress.
If that all sounds alarmist, I felt that way too. So I contacted three other sources, including one who’s superbly well placed, and ran this scenario by them. Two agreed. One suggested I’m actually being too optimistic.
So yeah. The bouncy castles and the Fuck Trudeau signs aren’t really the story here. And if you’re wondering why no one wants to act, it’s because they’re afraid of what they’ll be unleashing.
But there are ways to approach this. As I return to Toronto, my journey to Ottawa complete, I’ll take the next two days to speak with my sources again, and offer up, on Friday, what I hope is a path to a non-violent, or at least minimally violent, outcome.
Until then, from a truck stop outside of Ottawa, take care.
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Real journlism comes from walking, talking, listening and probing. Your instincts are on fire, and I trust them because you've taken the time to really report. Context is everything, and you've provided more in three days than I've seen in weeks. Thank you Matt.
Very unsettling. This is what doing journalism looks like. Well done, Matt Gurney.