It wasn’t the most confidence-inspiring of news conferences.
On the sixth straight day of the protest that has immobilized the core of the nation’s capital and harassed local residents, Ottawa officials still gave nothing approaching a timeline of when this all might come to an end.
“I can’t give you a definitive, ‘It’s one day, it’s two days. It’s one week, it’s two weeks,'” police Chief Peter Sloly told council members during a public briefing Wednesday afternoon.
No sense of an end date isn’t what anyone wanted to hear. Even more disturbing, the chief floated the unsettling idea that policing alone won’t end this mess.
The situation is fluid and potentially dangerous. Earlier this week, police apprehended and charged a man with a knife and baton.
While the number of protesters has shrunk to hundreds from thousands last weekend, those who remain set up on downtown streets with their vehicles seem determined to stay until they get what they want.
But what they want isn’t exactly clear. Some insist the national vaccine mandate for truckers must be cancelled, others such as the organizers behind a Wednesday news release want general COVID-19 restrictions — largely the provincial government’s measures — lifted.
Still others fantasize about overthrowing the Liberal government with the help of the Governor General and the head of the Senate.
Although police are in contact with some of the convoy “captains,” these folks in no way represent all of the protesters in the city. The chief said participants are both associated with dozens and dozens of groups, not to mention the many “lone wolf” types who have attached themselves.
Police negotiations and finger-wagging from politicians at all levels of government haven’t convinced the hardcore to roll out of town. So it may be understandable that Sloly, who’s been open that his approach is to de-escalate and avoid violence, can’t offer an end date to this situation.
What’s far less understandable is why Sloly would float the idea that politicians need to get involved in this protest for it to end, without quite saying so or stating plainly what he meant.
‘Element outside of the police’ needed, says chief
Here’s exactly what he said: “The longer this goes on, the more I am convinced there may not be a police solution to this demonstration.”
WATCH | Ottawa’s police chief on the hurdles to a solution:
In fact, he said that a number of times. He explained that this protest isn’t a mere local event but provincial and national in scope. The demands being made by the protesters, however one may view them, are political.
And that’s not any police chief’s purview.
“I don’t have a singular mandate in this city, this province or this country, to negotiate the end to any demonstration. There always needs to be an element outside of the police for any truly successful end to any demonstration, particularly one of this size,” he said.
But asked directly by reporters what he meant, he repeated some version of his above comment. Asked if by non-policing elements, he meant politicians or perhaps the military, he responded, “I think you just listed most of them right there.”
He didn’t elaborate.
Calling in the military is a rare and unlikely scenario, unless the situation escalates to a level of ugliness none want to see.
Sloly did include asking for military help as an option, along with calling in the RCMP (no formal request has yet been made), requesting more provincial police help, or filing for a court injunction.
So that leaves politicians.
It’s not clear what Sloly is suggesting. Should Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or someone in his government speak with the protesters? That’s not happening, say government sources. After all, some fly racist flags and have taken up the “F–k Trudeau” slogan.
WATCH | Some of Trudeau’s comments on Monday:
Does the chief think the federal government should open a channel to discuss reducing pandemic restrictions? Again, this seems very unlikely.
Maybe the premier should step in? But Doug Ford is in another city and besides telling protesters to leave and condemning hate symbols and disrespect of monuments, doesn’t seem eager to engage.
It is certainly possible that Sloly is right, that some agency that isn’t his force — or the OPP, or the RCMP, or the army — needs to deal with these folks’ demands. Clearly, pleading with them to leave for the good of the fed-up local community isn’t working. But it’s not responsible to float that possibility before he’s ready to be more precise.
One reporter asked Sloly if the Prime Minister needs to get involved. The chief said “That’s a question for politicians to decide.”
It was a little late to be so circumspect. Mayor Jim Watson, who was at the same briefing and is a politician, didn’t answer either.
So we’re left with no clear end date for this protest, with citizens starting to take things into their own hands by organizing their own protests, escorts and food deliveries, and with the police chief vaguely suggesting that some course of action other than policing will be needed.
Oh, and one more thing: This weekend, we expect protest reinforcements to come to town and crowds in the downtown to swell again.
If police can’t restore normalcy, then who’s got the solution?