Matt Gurney: How the convoy almost beat the Canadian government
All it took to knock us flat on our ass for three weeks was a few thousand people whose jobs gave them a reasonable knack for organization and logistics.
By: Matt Gurney
There’s an interesting little line buried deep in the first volume of Justice Paul Rouleau’s Public Order Emergency Commission report. It’s on page 135. Blink and you’ll miss it. Rouleau is discussing the origins of the convoy, and he notes simply that the cross-border vaccine mandates led “a group with expertise in logistics and planning to organize a cross-country journey to Ottawa.”
I almost skipped over the line entirely the first time I read it. But then, for some reason, I slowed down. And thought about it. And went, huh.
“Huh” is a thing for a columnist. It’s when you start making the connections between little bits of info floating around in your head that’ll lead to a thesis. And the more I read that line, the more “Huh” I felt.
“A group with expertise in logistics and planning.”
I have an admittedly strange hobby. I read post-disaster reports. Plane crashes, the 9/11 Commission report, the loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia … these were all massive, complicated events that often moved faster than a human eye could perceive. But when you study them later, and break the sequence of events down into all the tiny parts, you can see what worked, what didn’t, and where the critical failures happened. And then you can ask yourself what we could have done to prevent those failures: better design, better planning, better training.
POEC is something like this. Strip away all the emotion and controversy and we’re left with an unusual event that forced Canadian governments to respond rapidly to a fast-changing set of circumstances. How we responded is not just fascinating, it’s also crucial to understanding Canadian state capacity, or the lack thereof.
And that’s why Rouleau’s note about the truckers being good at logistics and planning jumped out at me. It’s an interesting comparison to how Canadian officialdom responded, and not a flattering one.
The convoy crisis — and I’m mostly speaking here about the events in Ottawa, though the situation at the border crossings fit the same general pattern — forced Canadian police and political leaders to respond quickly to evolving circumstances. And Rouleau’s report is just a relentlessly brutal catalogue of the ways they failed.
Is it really necessary at this point to recap the failure of the Ottawa police? We at The Line have long maintained that the complete failure of the Ottawa police to plan for and control the protest not only allowed the convoy to entrench itself, but also established the psychological paradigm that would define the crisis for weeks: the convoyers held the initiative (not to mention the capital) and the Canadian state was befuddled and adrift. From that, a national crisis was born. Rouleau is just devastating. “The OPS [Ottawa Police Service]’s planning challenges,” he notes on page 56 of the first volume, “were compounded by a general breakdown of command and control.” Super.
He’s even more brutal on page 185 of the second volume: “The influx of Freedom Convoy vehicles and the disruptive behaviour by some protesters threw the OPS operational command at the NCRCC [a command centre] into a state of dysfunction. OPS Inspector Lucas described the atmosphere at the NCRCC as chaotic and explained that he and his team had neither the capacity to process the incoming information nor the resources to respond to the needs it was facing. In the late afternoon of January 29, the OPP’s [Ontario Provincial Police] representative at the NCRCC, Inspector Dawn Ferguson, reported to OPP Superintendent Abrams that OPS members in the NCRCC were panicked and were swearing and yelling orders at each other and at partner agencies.”
Moving up a level of government, much has already been written about the cowardice of the Ford government. If any agency performed semi-well, it was the Ontario Provincial Police. The OPP was the force that was generating most of the critical intelligence used (or ignored) during the crisis. It was quick to realize that command-and-control had collapsed in Ottawa (see above), and to begin working with the RCMP on a plan — eventually a series of plans — to restore order. You can’t read POEC and conclude the OPP performed perfectly. Far from it. It was probably the best we had, though, but because Ford took a gander at the mess in Ottawa and decided to mosey on off to the cottage, it couldn’t do much.
And that leaves us with the feds. I have maintained since last year that the federal government hasn’t received nearly enough attention in our understanding of what the hell went wrong last year. This has caused a fair degree of pushback, especially from Liberal supporters who read any reference to the “federal government” as “our beloved prime minister.” But no — while I don’t think the prime minister or the federal cabinet did particularly well during the crisis, the real federal failures were in the officials that supported the PM and his ministers.
You read about some of this in The Line yesterday. Thomas Juneau and Vincent Rigby both wrote about what the crisis revealed about the sorry state of intelligence gathering and collection during the crisis. There were major “gaps” — this seems to be the agreed-upon parlance — in what information the federal government had, and was itself able to gather and collect. Some of the gaps were an issue of insufficiently broad mandates; in other cases, even if the mandate to collect some data, particularly social media posts, was in place, it’s doubtful the feds would have had the necessary personnel or technical capabilities to read, organize and analyze the information anyway.
I won’t belabour the points already made capably by Juneau and Rigby. I will, however, refer you to the POEC’s third volume, where Rouleau discusses the federal government’s efforts to understand what was happening during the crisis. It’s not a fun read.
If you want to see it yourself, check out pages 38 and 39 of the third volume. For those in a hurry, though, it turns out that even within the government, the flow of information was so bad that the clerk of the privy council, and the prime minister, noted that staff were learning about the convoy not via internal reports, but social media. The federal government had, as Juneau and Rigby have noted, “intelligence gaps” that “hampered the government’s ability to understand, anticipate, and respond to the situation, and to reconcile conflicting information such as contradictory reports about the size of the convoy.” The federal government didn’t have the software to process and analyze online posts, even public ones.
And then there was this (my emphasis added):
[National Security and Intelligence Advisor] Thomas also described an information-sharing gap between law enforcement and government. Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Security and Intelligence, Michael MacDonald recalled a significant delay in receiving updates from the RCMP, due to the RCMP’s obligation to consult with each intelligence agency that has provided the RCMP with information prior to sharing that information further (known as the “third party rule”). The NSIA’s office did not receive situation reports, project reports, or other forms of information, such as Project Hendon reports, that the RCMP obtained from other law enforcement agencies. Prior to the events of the convoy, the NSIA was not aware of Project Hendon. …
NSIA Thomas further stated that it was sometimes difficult to know how to interact with law enforcement agencies. She recognized that government must not interfere in operational matters, but thought that there was nonetheless useful information that could have been provided to decision makers without encroaching upon police independence. However, senior officials were uncertain how to obtain that information, and were concerned about “crossing the line” both in requesting information and in discussing solutions.
And that doesn’t even cover our now-outgoing national commissioner of the RCMP being so clueless she decided to just not mention germane information during a critical meeting because … well, we never really got a good explanation for that one. Oh well. Enjoy your retirement, Commissioner Lucki!
Readers shouldn’t misinterpret my argument here, or take it further than it goes. This isn’t about some broad-based tarring of the entirety of Canadian governance. Lots of people did their jobs well and properly under enormous pressure last year. Nor is the intention here to romanticize the convoy. Whatever inherent ability the convoy’s loose collection of leaders had to organize itself began to evaporate as soon as it actually reached Ottawa. And, as we all so memorably recall, there really wasn’t any coherent leadership in any political sense. The protesters had natural organizational and logistics skills that allowed them to establish a viable, well-run encampment. Funds were collected and organized, food and fuel were delivered, sausages were grilled, hot tubs filled, the sidewalks kept clear, and the like. That’s about as organized as the skillsets of the participants allowed the convoy to get, and within that envelope, they did a good job.
On the other hand, we had multiple levels of Canadian governance that had all kinds of formal training and titles and academic knowledge but, when a crisis came, they didn’t really know how to do their jobs under crisis conditions. They had a general sense of what they were supposed to be doing, but whether it was gaps in the intelligence, in the leadership, or even the understanding of how all the disparate parts of our governance were supposed to work, the Canadian government writ large had the opposite problem as the convoy: it had layers of strategic oversight and decision-making, but was so hapless at the ground level that none of the people with the big titles and broad mandates really knew what the hell was going on or what they were supposed to be doing about it, who they were allowed to talk to about what, or what meetings they were supposed to speak up in when they had useful information to share.
The literal middle of a crisis is not the ideal time for the prime minister’s top intelligence and security advisor to be figuring out what she can and cannot say to cops and for key staff to be checking Twitter for the latest updates.
And yet. Huh.
What’s most maddening of all is that a lot of these issues could have been hammered out with some realistic training exercises. Some kind of armed attack on Ottawa isn’t outside the realm of possibility — we’ve seen small versions before, including one not long ago. Why did key players in our federal government — including the ones who are supposed to be experts in national security! — not realize there were gaps both in their intelligence and their operational understanding and oversight? Why didn’t critical officials properly understand how to communicate with colleagues? Why were political staff relying on social media? Why did the Ottawa police command centre descend into profane shouting within hours of the first truck pulling up? In summary, how were the people whom we count on to handle crisis so ill-prepared for a crisis?
I can sense the objections now. There was a pandemic! It was an unprecedented event! They adapted in the end! Sure. I don’t ask for perfection. Just reasonable competence. No level of Canadian governance met that fairly low bar last year. This is a problem that we probably shouldn’t assume has magically resolved itself since then.
As I read through POEC and began taking down the notes that would eventually become this column, I commented to my colleague Jen Gerson that if the convoy actually was what it has often been portrayed as on social media — a horde of thousands of literal Nazis and Confederates set on violently overthrowing our democratically elected government — then it’s impossible to read the Rouleau commission report and conclude we wouldn’t be living in the Confederate Republic of Nazi Canada by now. If the violent extremists in the various protests hadn’t been such a fringe minority surrounded by a bunch of generally peaceful (if misguided) protesters, they’d have cut through Canadian defences in the capital like a blowtorch through a pound of supply managed butter. All it took to knock us flat on our ass for three weeks was a few thousand people whose jobs have given them a pretty good knack for organization and logistics.
And I can’t stress this enough: the convoy wasn’t unusually well led, or coordinated by logistics prodigies. It was just a pretty normal group of people who are, presumably, pretty much average in their workplace performance. If your job requires you to manage a bunch of projects at the same time and coordinate different teams, especially if you mix in a bit of expertise in event planning and fleet operations, you are apparently probably capable of overthrowing the Canadian state. Semi-pro band roadies could likely install themselves as Supreme Ruler inside a month.
Ordinary working folks with some bonkers political opinions. That’s all it took to overwhelm us. A reasonably organized group of a few thousand people collapsed a municipal police force, drove a provincial premier into hiding and left the federal government stumbling around for weeks, checking their phones and wondering if they were allowed to talk to the RCMP or nah.
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