Adam: Why did the leaders of Ottawa fail so much during the occupation?

Two crises, two results: the city has managed the COVID-19 crisis extraordinarily well. But when the convoy arrived in town, our politicians failed us miserably.

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Canada recently marked a bitter milestone, the second anniversary of a COVID-19 pandemic that has plagued and brought out the best and the worst in us. Along the way, he created heroes and villains in equal measure.

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For every heroic healthcare worker we celebrated, there was a COVID skeptic who spread misinformation, or an anti-vaxxer who yelled in the faces of hospital workers and harassed those who wore masks.

Above all, the pandemic has been a test of leadership, a test of how well the people we have entrusted with the power to protect us in difficult situations have risen to the challenge – or not. For Ottawa, it was a story of two crises: how the mayor and a city government handled COVID-19 with such aplomb, and then did so badly to deal with the occupation of our downtown core.

Overall, Ottawa’s handling of the pandemic has been admirable. From the start, Mayor Jim Watson set the tone with a calm assurance that radiated competence and empathy, and he enabled senior officials like the Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches, to effectively lead the way. . Lines of authority were never blurred and information was conveyed as effectively as possible to an anxious audience. The city has tried as best it can to reach out to its various constituencies and offer help. Few could complain about the city’s handling of the pandemic.

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Fast forward to the truckers protest and you had a totally different story. Once the police let the protesters in and they settled in, city leaders were confused. They didn’t know what to do. As residents were harassed, intimidated, abused, and left in various stages of mental anguish, city leaders stirred uncertainly. It took a brave 21-year-old, Zexi Li, to go to court and secure relief for locals as politicians made excuses and police took no action.

It’s remarkable how the mayor, who has stood his ground during the pandemic, suddenly found himself at a loss for ideas. He unsuccessfully called on protesters to go home and floated the idea of ​​a federal mediator to mediate the talks. It came to nothing. In desperation, Watson negotiated with the very occupiers strangling the city to get trucks off residential streets. It made little difference.

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Chief Peter Sloly resigned and for a time very little changed. The Ottawa Police Services Board attempted to hire an interim chief, disregarding interim chief Steve Bell, and Watson intervened. He engineered the removal of board chair and mayoral candidate Diane Deans, and in protest three other board members resigned: councilors Rawlson King and Carol Anne Meehan; and Sandy Smallwood, nominated by the city. He went down from there. Watson installed one of his allies, the Advisor. Eli El-Chantiry as chairman, but the new council collapsed following reports that provincial appointee Robert Swaita had attended the truckers’ protest. This has left a void in police oversight and the province has yet to name its three new members at the time of writing. The council canceled a meeting for lack of quorum and it is not known when it will resume its meetings.

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If there was any doubt about the failure of the town hall, the collapse of the police council should dispel it. We are here in the midst of a major crisis, with public confidence in the police at an all-time low, and the city has no functioning police commission. Once Watson made the political decision to remove Deans, it was never going to end well. The council’s attempt to hire an acting chief, which it had the authority to do, was not a dismissal offence. The council could have, and probably should have, consulted with Watson, but under different circumstances the mayor would have talked to the president and resolved the issue.

It’s hard to understand how Watson went from sure leader of the pandemic response to losing plot at the truckers’ protest. It was perhaps a one-of-a-kind demonstration that defied the usual norms. Maybe not. Whatever the reason, we need to know why the city’s leaders failed so it never happens again.

Mohammad Adam is an Ottawa journalist and commentator. Contact him at

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