Officers weren’t told of threats to harm police, says RCMP ‘Freedom Convoy’ report

By Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

An internal RCMP review of the force’s response to “Freedom Convoy” protests found that some officers at the scene of an Alberta blockade were unaware of threats to harm police until after the episode ended.

The review report also describes “chaotic” efforts in early 2022 to mobilize officers in Ottawa, a lack of proper equipment, inadequate training, poor intelligence co-ordination and exceptionally long days that prompted some Mounties to sleep in their offices.

In addition, the federal government’s “demands for hourly briefings” during the upheaval left no time for intelligence units “to prepare an assessment, nor to collect the most up-to-date information,” the review says.

The Canadian Press used the Access to Information Act to obtain the 92-page national after-action review, part of a post-convoy effort dubbed Project Natterjack.

The review includes the results of a survey of 1,641 RCMP personnel involved in the response to the 2022 protests that paralyzed downtown Ottawa for weeks and jammed key border points.

In early February 2022, the national capital was besieged by protesters, many in large rigs that rolled into town beginning in late January.

Initially billed as a demonstration against COVID-19 health measures, the gathering attracted people with various grievances against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government. 

Meanwhile, the protests spread, and trucks clogged border crossings, including important routes to the United States at Windsor, Ont., and Coutts, Alta.

At Coutts, the RCMP found firearms, ammunition and tactical vests in trailers. Police also uncovered an alleged conspiracy to murder RCMP officers.

The after-action report says the survey found that some personnel at Coutts “were not aware of the threats to police officers until after the blockade concluded. Others noted that they only learned about the threats through media reporting.”

“This raises a number of officer safety concerns for members who are deployed to the front line and as an organization this issue must be addressed,” the review report says. “It is imperative that all front-line members receive briefings prior to being deployed which includes information about possible threats to life.”

In Ottawa, the influx of people, including some with roots in the far-right movement, prompted many businesses to close temporarily. Residents complained of blaring truck horns, diesel fumes and harassing behaviour. 

Public anger grew over a lack of enforcement action by Ottawa police. Officers from other forces, including the RCMP, gradually arrived to help clear the streets.

Survey respondents and others interviewed for the report described the process to deploy RCMP officers in the national capital as “chaotic” because there weren’t enough personnel “trained and knowledgeable in effective mobilization and scheduling,” the review says.

Interviewees also said it was difficult to secure enough RCMP officers to assist the Ottawa police because the deployment was optional, not a mandatory requirement. 

“Specifically, ‘call out’ emails were sent to National Headquarters employees asking members whether they were interested in deploying to assist Ottawa Police Service,” the report says.

It notes the convoy events took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, further limiting availability of officers due to illness.

In addition, it was difficult to round up “an appropriate number of marked police cars and equipment” for officers who were deployed because Mounties at headquarters generally do not perform front-line policing duties and therefore aren’t equipped like a regular detachment.

It meant there was a limited supply of use-of-force equipment such as carbine rifles, Tasers and pepper spray.

Survey respondents also expressed a desire for more and better-quality cold-weather items such as jackets, gloves, boots and balaclavas, as well as public-order gear like shields and helmets.

Some had difficulties accessing reliable communication tools, including police radios, batteries and radio holders for belts. Personnel also cited a need for more computer equipment, better-quality internet connections and software for open-source intelligence collection.

There is little to no public order or tactical training for general duty RCMP members who are not a part of tactical support groups or public order units, and no training on crowd-control tactics was provided before the convoy events to prepare such members, the report says.

“In some instances, there was no planning and/or inconsistent direction provided by those in leadership roles on what to do, or what the desired or expected outcome should be.”

Training-related improvements are needed to ensure that members are “ready to be deployed for all types of events,” the report adds.

The reviewers also found the Ottawa training facility at the force’s former headquarters building was unusable “due to poor air quality resulting in employees experiencing sore scratchy throats, sinus congestion and coughing.”

The poor air quality resulted in the cancellation of five recertification training courses in late 2022 and early 2023, resulting in a backlog of members with expired certification, the report says. “If the current situation is not resolved, the RCMP will be unable to provide surge capacity to policing partners in the National Capital Region.”

Interviewees noted a lack of intelligence co-ordination within the RCMP during the convoy events, resulting in a duplication of efforts. Some said the confusion was due in part to the absence of “an effective governance structure for the RCMP’s intelligence program.”

Almost 40 per cent of survey respondents disagreed with the notion that decisions made by RCMP management were well communicated within the organization during the convoy events.

Many employees toiled well beyond scheduled hours, with intelligence practitioners working 10 to 15 hours a day without breaks as they produced regular updates, sometimes hourly, or daily, depending on the team, the report says.

Front-line members reported working 16 to 18 hours a day during the convoy events, not including the travel time to distant lodgings. Some employees had temporary cots set up in their offices and slept there, the report adds.

Officers faced verbal abuse and constant loud noise during the protests. While some supervisors conducted followups and regular check-ins with staff to see if they needed health breaks, “there were limited mental health supports offered otherwise.”

However, the RCMP’s British Columbia division assigned a member to look after the mental and physical well-being of deployed officers.

The RCMP has since developed an employee and family resource guide, and the force is conducting a longitudinal study to look at the development of operational stress injuries among members, the report notes.

The RCMP said in a statement the after-action review is intended to ensure the force captures best practices and lessons learned that could be put to use in future.

The force is reviewing the review’s many recommendations, though some “have already been assessed” because they correspond to those of the Public Order Emergency Commission that examined the convoy events and the Mass Casualty Commission into the 2020 killings in Nova Scotia, the statement said.

Efforts to implement recommendations are being led by the RCMP’s reform, accountability and culture sector to ensure alignment between the “various important pieces of work underway to advance these respective reports and inquiries.”

Eric Slinn, a retired RCMP assistant commissioner who served as an external reviewer on the Natterjack team, says in the after-action report that while the Mounties and other agencies have made changes in planning, communicating and responding to public order events, “the fact remains we need to evolve, adapt, develop and implement standardized, seamless, interoperable responses if we are to be effective in our commitment to the safety and security of Canadians, and maintain their trust and confidence.”

“However, implementing these critically important changes cannot rest on the will of RCMP leaders alone, it must come with the support of appropriate legislative changes, along with greater investment from government.”

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