Paul Wells: An Emergency In Ottawa
An excerpt from Paul Wells' new book, published today, about what was happening behind the scenes in Ottawa during the convoy.
By: Paul Wells
My new book, An Emergency In Ottawa: The Story of the Convoy Commission, is an odd duck.
First, while it inhabits the space between two covers and will be sold in bookstores, it’s not a freestanding book. It’s the second issue of Sutherland Quarterly, an ambitious new project in long-form journalism from Sutherland House Books publisher Ken Whyte. (John Fraser’s travelogue of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, Funeral For a Queen, was the first issue.) Sutherland Quarterly will publish a new issue on a single subject every three months. A new writer, topic and stylistic approach every issue. Who’s publishing 25,000-word essays and reportage these days? Sutherland Quarterly will.
Second, by the nature of the subject, An Emergency in Ottawa covers several periods at once. It’s about Justice Paul Rouleau’s Public Order Emergency Commission, which heard witnesses in October and November 2022. Those witnesses discussed the Freedom Convoy’s occupation of downtown Ottawa, which happened in February 2022. Rouleau’s report came out in February 2023. So the book describes what the hearings were like, what the Convoy was like, what Rouleau concluded, how we got into this mess and what we might have learned since — all in 100 pages. I decided early there would be no point, and no fun, sticking to a straight chronology.
What could I bring to this strange episode that few observers had tried? I chose empathy. I tried to listen to everyone — Ottawa residents, police, protesters, governments — and understand what this unprecedented situation was like for them all. Everyone was already exhausted and dysfunctional before the crisis started. Nobody’s plans worked. In every group there were people who wanted to talk and listen instead of confronting. Even, as we see in this excerpt, among the protesters. The conciliators in every group lost. But were they wrong?
It seems that people who were angry about vaccines were almost always angry about other stuff, too. As were the Ottawa occupiers. It’s been noted that the Freedom Convoy had precursor events that predated the coronavirus, like United We Roll in 2019. It’s fair to wonder, then, whether the convoy was really about vaccination requirements for truckers, given that most of the convoy protesters weren’t truckers and most truckers were happily vaccinated. One might ask whether the convoy was about vaccines at all. Maybe it was just about hating Justin Trudeau. Clearly, for most of the protesters, to some extent it was both.
You might be thinking: “Sure, there’s been unease about vaccination over the years. But none of those moms or environmentalists or crackpot naturopaths hopped into trucks and rode to Ottawa to overthrow the government.” Which is true. But if their testimony can be taken at face value, neither did many of the Freedom Convoy organizers.
Keith Wilson, for example, flew.
Wilson is a bespectacled, well-spoken lawyer from Edmonton. He’s been practicing for twenty-eight years, often for “people who are up against forces bigger than them.” That has sometimes meant ranchers fighting oil companies. It has often meant just about anybody fighting government. Wilson’s wife, a retired nurse, generally wishes he would work less. But in fall 2021 she got so upset about anti-COVID restrictions that she urged him to sue some government for something.
He picked travel restrictions.
Wilson’s POEC interrogator in the Winifred Bambrick Room was Jeff Leon, the commission’s co-lead counsel. How’s that travel case going, he asked. “We just got struck on mootness,” Wilson said mournfully. (Translation: the case was thrown out because the restrictions Wilson wanted to contest were no longer in effect.) “We’re appealing that to the federal Court of Appeal.”
Wilson told the commission that on February 1, 2022, he was on a Zoom call about the travel case with his clients at the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary group that makes Charter arguments in court cases on behalf of social conservatives. Wilson noticed there were more people on the call than usual. Some of the convoy protesters were looking for lawyers. By the next morning, he was on a flight to Ottawa.
That was quick, Leon said. “Well, I got spousal consent very quickly, so that helped tremendously,” Wilson said.
The flight was a chartered twin-prop. It took its time getting to Ottawa, with stops in Medicine Hat, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Thunder Bay to pick up other lawyers and an accountant. Why a charter? “Some of the passengers were unvaccinated.” How about Wilson?
“I’m double vaccinated.”
So on February 2, late at night, he arrived at ARC The Hotel, an elegant boutique hostelry with an affected name on Slater Street, three blocks from Parliament Hill. It had become a logistical base for a bunch of convoy organizers. The rest of Wilson’s night was spent meeting people — it was essentially his first encounter with the leadership — and getting several of them to sign retainers so he could be their lawyer.
He never did meet James Bauder, the Alberta trucker whose so-called memorandum of understanding called for the governor general and the Senate to eliminate COVID-related restrictions in cooperation with Bauder’s group, Canada Unity. But, being a lawyer, he was asked about it by other convoy protesters all the time.
The memorandum of understanding was essentially a badly written formula for a coup. It gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures online, but it had few fans among the convoy organizers. To Wilson, the memorandum was “legal nonsense.” He explained this “consistently and repeatedly.”
To the government, the occupiers were a tightly knit and strongly determined bundle of malevolence that could not possibly be spoken to. What you learned on hearing these people speak, however, was that they were a bunch of strangers who disagreed about many things. As a bonus, the ones who had read some law understood that this plan with the governor general and the Senate was risible.
Also, many of them were eager for somebody in a position of authority to speak with them. In that long first week of February, Peter Sloly, the Ottawa police chief, was under increasing pressure from politicians and the public to make headway against the occupiers. Wilson was hearing from his new clients, the organizers, that the mood on the street was tense. He called another client looking for ideas. That client was Brian Peckford, who was the highly eccentric premier of Newfoundland a million years ago. These days he lives on Vancouver Island and fits right in. He was the lead plaintiff in that challenge to travel restrictions that was eventually struck for mootness.
Wilson asked whether Peckford knew anybody who could find him somebody to talk to. He did! Soon Wilson received a call from Dean French.
French had been chief of staff during Doug Ford’s first two years as premier of Ontario. It was a rocky period, but any premier’s chief of staff will know people in the city halls of the province’s larger cities. French knew people in Jim Watson’s Ottawa City Hall.
As he drew this narrative out of Wilson on the witness stand, Jeff Leon asked him why talking was such a priority.
“I’ve been in emergency operations centres of government on two major incidents and I’ve seen the chaos that occurs in there,” Wilson said. “And, you know, I know the importance of dialogue and communication. And I can sense the danger of the parties not talking, even if it’s [only] back-channel.”
French and Wilson had “a very, very intense phone call where he was testing me and I was testing him,” Wilson recalled. “Once he learned to trust me and I learned to trust him, we both thought it was achievable, so then he proceeded to go to work.”
Four days later, Wilson was at a meeting at Ottawa City Hall with Steve Kanellakos, the city manager. Wilson testified that he opened the conversation by trying to find something to offer.
“If we can move trucks and protesters, where can we provide the most immediate and effective relief?” Steve K and the other City of Ottawa people at the meeting were particularly concerned about the intersection of Sussex Drive and Rideau Street. Fine, said Wilson and the other convoy reps. They left, promising to keep the meeting secret.
“In these situations, it’s always about building trust and it’s the littlest things you can control that build the trust,” Wilson testified. “And so we agreed to keep the meeting secret.”
Then Wilson and Eva Chipiuk, another lawyer for the convoy, and Tom Marazzo, a retired Canadian Armed Forces captain who was handling logistics for the convoy, went in a straight line from the meeting to the intersection of Rideau and Sussex. “If something needed to be done, you did it right there and then,” he testified. “You never waited.”
Wilson and Chipiuk and Marazzo arrived at the intersection and looked around. It was obvious right away why you’d want that intersection cleared. On one corner there’s Ottawa’s biggest downtown shopping mall. On another is a top-tier condo building. The U.S. Embassy and the Senate (temporarily relocated) are each half a block away.
The three convoy organizers worked out a little charade where Wilson, who’d been on television and might hope to have some profile, left the scene and went to the Sheraton hotel while Chipiuk and Marazzo tried to get the truckers at Rideau and Sussex to move. “We had so little to negotiate with in terms of tools and tactics with the protesters,” Wilson testified. So the other two could try to get the Rideau-Sussex truckers to move, and if that didn’t work, they could say, “Well, I guess we’re going to have to get Keith.” Then he’d show up, a relative celebrity, and everyone would be suitably impressed.
Milling with the crowd, Chipiuk and Marazzo found that the first three trucks blocking traffic at Rideau and Sussex were driven by Polish Canadians. Luckily, Chipiuk speaks Polish. Soon there was a plan to unblock at least the westbound lanes. But there were concrete traffic barriers in the way. The police needed to get those barriers moved. All of this took longer than it’s taking me to tell you, but it was going in the right direction, toward de-escalation, with many good lessons in leadership, resolve, and compliance all around.
Then one of the Ottawa police liaison officers received a phone call. “The deal’s off,” he said.
“They’re not going to move the barricades.” This was during the period where Mark Patterson was the police service’s event commander and he was trying to establish himself as a strong enforcer on behalf of the beleaguered Chief Sloly. And that was that.
Wilson spent the rest of the occupation trying to regain lost momentum. Maybe he and his conciliatory colleagues could invite most of the truckers to relocate to some small town well outside Ottawa, providing them an excellent excuse to go home, and maybe that would lead the federal government to meet with some of the organizers. “There was not a strong desire to have a meeting with the prime minister.”
As plans go, it was sketchy, and perhaps the most important thing to note was that before Wilson could get anywhere close to implementing it, the Emergencies Act and several waves of suddenly better-coordinated police relieved him of the necessity of trying. What’s most striking to me is how far the protesters were from resembling any kind of cohesive force. Which leaves me wondering what might have happened if the factions that were urging cooperation on every side — Kanellakos at city hall, Marcel Beaudin at the OPP, Wilson and Marazzo and Chipiuk among the protesters — had managed to line up a few good days in a row.
Maybe there was no way that could have happened. Robert MacKinnon, a federal government lawyer, asked Wilson about the chaos within the convoy. “You have also said that the convoy attracted a lot of strange people.” Wilson agreed that it had.
MacKinnon: “And in those people you mention the coven of witches?”
Wilson: “That’s what they called themselves and they were doing weird séance things and burning things in the lobby.”
MacKinnon: “And conspiracy groups like Diagolon and QAnon?”
Wilson: “You bet.”
All these weirdos came to Ottawa “like moths to a flame.”
Tom Marazzo, the military veteran who ran logistics for the convoy, testified after Wilson. There was no ordering any of them around, he said.
“I had no legitimate or legal authority to tell anyone to do anything and I wasn’t signing anyone’s pay cheque. This was a case where you — you know, you had to use your soft skills to communicate and get people to buy in with what you were trying to do collectively.”
Maybe even with all the faith and luck in the world, getting this bunch of people do anything, even from within, would have been like picking up a handful of water.
Paul Wells is an Ottawa journalist and author. He writes the Paul Wells newsletter, paulwells.substack.com. An Emergency in Ottawa is published today (April 11) by Sutherland Quarterly and is available in bookstores.
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