Matt Gurney: Ottawa will have to wait. Windsor is the crisis, now
Our problem has become America's problem, and America can't tolerate a neighbour that can't keep its problems on their side of the border.
Note from the editors: Our normal Friday evening dispatch will be released on Saturday morning, as we continue to watch unfolding news events.
By: Matt Gurney
Last Sunday, as I was driving out to Ottawa to observe the protest that has taken hold of that city, one of the things I told my Line co-editor Jen Gerson that I was most curious to see wasn’t the protest itself, but the areas immediately around it. The lack of activity was baffling from afar. Was this an unmanageable crisis? If the police chose to move in, what was the terrain like? Did they have control of the access roads in the area around the protest? Were there places where they could insert themselves and establish barriers to control the flow of vehicles and pedestrians? Something else we chatted about on Sunday was whether all of this would be moved by the time I got there. I didn’t make the decision to leave for Ottawa until about three hours before I actually did. Part of me kept thinking that by the time I could get there it would finally be over. Letting it drag on has obvious real costs. What were they waiting for?
Here we are, five days later, and there is no indication that what's now being described by leaders as the “Siege of Ottawa” is ending anytime soon. Indeed, indications are that police resources have been redirected away from the capital to Windsor, Ontario, where it appears a clearing operation at the Ambassador Bridge is imminent. (This is based on both my own sources and publicly available news reports.) By the time this is published, maybe the bridge will be clear, or maybe something terrible will have occurred there.
We will talk about those other challenges in a minute, but first, let’s talk about Ottawa. Actually, no. Let’s talk about Toronto 12 years ago.
Before the 2010 G20 summit in my hometown, I'd have thought that a kettle was what you used to make tea or contain problematic quantities of fish. After the G20, Canadians came to appreciate a new meaning of the term. Kettling, as a police tactic, is when a large group of officers, typically in riot gear, entirely surround a crowd. The crowd becomes completely penned in by police or security forces. This was infamously done in Toronto for long hours, in an operation that trapped numerous random passersby and local residents in a police cordon, along with a group of protesters. The cordon was enforced completely inflexibly, with no accommodation at all given to those who just happened to be caught up there. It became a warranted flashpoint of criticism, one of the most heavily attacked and embarrassing moments of that black mark on Toronto’s reputation.
And weirdly, it wasn’t even how kettling is supposed to work.
In the aftermath of the G20, I spent some time drawing on the expertise of police sources across Ontario to understand what the hell had gone wrong. I particularly recall one conversation with a frustrated senior police leader who had no idea what the cops in Toronto had been doing. Kettling isn’t intended to trap a crowd, he explained to me. It’s intended to disperse one. Trapping a bunch of people in a confined space just ratchets up the pressure and makes them angrier. It takes an already tense situation and makes it worse. A proper kettle, my well-placed police source told me, is supposed to go something more like this: police surround an unruly crowd with a solid cordon of officers, and then begin letting the crowd out in small groups. Whatever mob mentality or group psychology existed in the solid mass of protesters or rioters, the kind of blood lust that can lead to catastrophic mistakes, doesn’t hold up when people are walking as individuals or in tiny groups through a solid corridor of police brawn and riot gear.
That’s the point, my source told me. Once you break the mob mentality, you turn people back into people, and the police can then either let them go, suitably chastened, or arrest people as individuals and process them in a controlled, non-violent manner. As time passes, instead of the situation becoming ever-more tense, the group confined within the kettle becomes smaller and easier to handle. Orderly dispersal and arrests defuse the situation and allows officers to handle a large group in small, manageable segments. Keeping things calm helps avoid accidents or mistakes from either confrontational civilians or, as we saw often in Toronto that weekend, rampaging cops.
“Once the mob starts thinking like dispirited individuals again,” my cop source told me, “the threat to public safety is mostly over.”
That’s not what happened in Toronto, and the city ended up owing a multi-million-dollar settlement and promised to reform its procedures. But as I walked the streets of Ottawa this week, I became increasingly baffled by why a version of kettling hasn’t been attempted there. I'd been looking for reasons why some kind of kettle-and-disperse strategy was impossible there. I didn't see any. It would be difficult in areas, absolutely. Risky, undeniably. But with enough officers, it's the best shot at a (mostly) peaceful outcome.
I described in my dispatches from Ottawa this week my journey through the main protest sites, where long lines of parked vehicles have jammed downtown routes. What I haven't previously described are my little journeys down the roads that parallel and intersect those blocked roads. Most of them are open and fully under police control. Indeed, many of the intersections along the blockade route are clear and unobstructed. A police operation to assume total control of those intersections, including placing heavy blocking vehicles of their own in them — buses and dump trucks, that sort of thing — would allow the police, in many areas, to cut the protest into much smaller segments. (Some intersections are already blocked by concrete barriers that have been brought in, see photo below.) A large deployment of officers, perhaps augmented by barriers and fencing, could chop the Ottawa protest's main blocked routes into chunks, forming an instant kettle. And then the police would simply have to be patient. People could be urged to leave, and perhaps even promised a period of amnesty: anyone who leaves in the first eight hours avoids charges or faces reduced ones. After that period, to be blunt about this, it becomes a siege, but in reverse: the blockade becomes blockaded. The protesters are trapped inside, with whatever supplies they have on hand. You can come out peacefully at any time, but no one gets in. Cut off from food, and the fuel cans that have so infuriated Ottawa residents as they're carted in with total impunity, their position would grow weaker each day. The police could move in with overwhelming force into one segment at a time, breaking up the protest piece by piece, hopefully without any bloodshed.
This is not a perfect plan, I stress. I ran it by two well-placed police sources, including one with experience with precisely these kind of operations. They agreed with the general outline and concurred that something like this will probably happen. (The only reason I feel comfortable disclosing it in public is because the protesters themselves are fully aware this is likely the police play — I’m not saying here anything they haven’t figured out for themselves already.) My police sources flagged three immediate challenges to this kind of strategy in Ottawa’s particular context. First, all along the protest route, even if the police can control the intersections, they wouldn't automatically control the sidewalks inside the kettled areas, and there are building entrances all along the streets that would need to be secured from the inside. Driving a bunch of furious protesters into an office building doesn't help anyone.
Another concern was that this would require a lot of officers — a lot. You'd need enough both to control the kettle perimeter in considerable strength in rotating shifts while still having a large enough force to move into isolated segments to make arrests, while also having enough officers available to maintain normal police services in the city while also keeping an eye on the outlying encampment I discussed in my third dispatch (and another that has popped up since). It's possible to do all these things, but it would be a big draw on the total available police manpower resources for Ontario and indeed Canada, and it would need to be sustained for potentially days or weeks.
And the third challenge, of course, is that any move to divide and isolate the protest route could trigger an immediate reaction, possibly violent. The point of this strategy is to end the protest peacefully, without violent confrontation. But that depends on how the guys inside the cordon choose to react.
Still, I was told, my plan was generally in line with what would likely occur. The ramping up of enforcement and increasingly loud warnings from Ottawa police in recent days are necessary steps that need to be done before such an operation could be commenced. Every protester and vehicle that's encouraged to leave peacefully is one less to worry about. And moving in to a possibly violent confrontation without giving far warning is simply not morally or politically tenable. So there really was a sense that something like what I’d outlined above was coming in Ottawa — maybe it wasn’t imminent, but it was foreseeable.
And then the border blockades began.
The Coutts, Alberta blockade had already begun, in fairness. But Coutts, and the more recent Emerson, Manitoba blockade, are irritants. The blockade of the Ambassador Bridge, linking Windsor, Ontario to Detroit, Michigan, though, is entirely different. It's a direct threat to the Canadian economy, in a big way. Ontario imports a huge amount of its food over that bridge. The auto sector, so critical to both the U.S. and Canadian economies, requires that bridge be open. Closing it imposed an immediate, harsh cost that closing Coutts, Emerson and, to be blunt, most of downtown Ottawa, did not. It also triggered a strong reaction from U.S. officials, reportedly including President Biden himself. Our problem has become America's problem, and America can't tolerate a neighbour that can't keep its problems on their side of the border. My sources in Ottawa report that the Americans are willing to help us as best they can, but they're also being explicitly clear — fix your goddamn mess, friendly northern neighbours. Now.
On Thursday, my sources began buzzing quite loudly, and all were in agreement. Any planned operation in Ottawa was off. The police there would contain and maintain some pressure to encourage voluntary departures, but no big move was coming. Resources were being diverted to Windsor, instead. On Thursday evening, word broke that Premier Doug Ford would declare a state of emergency; on Friday morning, he did just that, while also making explicitly clear that the border blockade will no longer be tolerated. In a short Twitter message on Thursday evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically noted that he had spoken with the mayor of Windsor, and the PM also held a briefing with the leaders of the opposition. My colleague Seán O'Shea, of Global News, is in Windsor, and reported Friday that multiple sources have told him that police resources, including tactical units, are moving en masse to Windsor. I've heard the same.
Poor Ottawans will just have to wait a bit longer. Windsor is simply too critical a site, economically and now politically, to remain blockaded for a moment longer than necessary. It is also smaller, and on terrain that makes any police operation simpler and less risky for all involved (the risk isn't zero, but it's less). Officials seem to hope that a strong show of state power — hopefully not violent, but decisive — at Windsor will impress upon protesters and blockaders elsewhere that the party is over. Threats of going after drivers' licences and seizing vehicles are also intended to convince those who may be wondering if they've made a terrible mistake that it's time to pack up and head home while they still can.
Will it work? For some of them, probably. For others? No. Especially in Ottawa, where the long protest has already thinned out the crowd, leaving only the most committed left behind, where they now spend their time talking to each other, becoming ever-more convinced of their rightness.
There are other columns that need to be written about what led us to this point. There were obviously massive failures in intelligence, crippling indecision and incompetence among key leaders, paralyzing political spats and a heaping helping of outright abdication of duty. All of those things, and more, brought us to this point.
But those columns can wait. The only challenge now is getting us out of this mess, and then figuring out how to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
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