Windsor police had enough help from law enforcement partners to dismantle the week-long Ambassador Bridge blockade in February at least a day sooner, but the force delayed action due to the number of children present.
That’s according to Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, who was tested on Monday before the Public Order Emergency Commission, which has been looking into the circumstances surrounding the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act.
The commission in Ottawa began its fourth week with testimony from Dilkens, acting Deputy Police Chief Jason Crowley — superintendent of investigations during the blockade — and several other witnesses.
Dilkens said it was “disheartening” to see parents bring children to the Freedom Convoy protest on Huron Church Road after police had begun to advance and regain territory on Feb. 12.
The nature and the spirit of the protest was unlike anything I’ve ever seen
I think someone in the police structure, probably several people, said the most sensible thing here is to wait because, at some point, these kids are gonna get cold — it’s February,” Dilkens told the commission.
“They’re going to get tired, they’re going to get hungry, they’re going to leave, so we’re not going to move forward with the policing posture they had in place when they had a lot of young kids there “
During his four-hour testimony, Dilkens called the Emergencies Act “extremely helpful” in protecting the Ambassador Bridge, North America’s busiest international crossing. Even though the act was invoked one day after the lengthy bridge blockade’s end, it sent a signal to protest not to return, he said.
Dilkens said he learned on Feb. 4 about plans by convoy supporters to do “slow rolls” of transport trucks at the entrance to the Ambassador Bridge, which sees between $300 million and $450 million in trade cross each day.
The mayor then sent a text to federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino to alert him about the possibility of a blockade.
During the course of the protest, Dilkens also had conversations with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, keeping them up to date about the situation on the ground, as well as other federal and provincial officials.
Even though local leaders saw the blockade coming through social media, Dilkens said there was no way to prevent it without blocking Huron Church, a major artery to the bridge and many businesses and homes. Instead, Pam Mizuno, chief of the Windsor Police Service at the time, told Dilkens they were monitoring the situation.
“It would be for all intents and purposes practically impossible to guarantee with any certainty that you could provide a route for trucks without having huge disruption to the community,” Dilkens said.
Demonstrators protesting COVID-19 mandates began blocking Huron Church Road on Feb. 7, disrupting traffic to the Ambassador Bridge and eventually forcing the bridge’s closure. Although a court injunction granted on Feb. 11 was intended to end the occupation, protestors remained in place until the next day, when police started arresting those who refused to move.
Dilkens told the commission that Mizuno said Windsor police did not have enough officers to clear the bridge once the blockade was in place. She quickly requested 100 additional officers from the OPP and RCMP.
Eventually, more than 500 additional officers from other forces converged in Windsor to help.
Windsor police were cautious in their approach to dismantling the blockade so as not to further inflame the protesters, the mayor said.
“The nature and the spirit of the protest was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The posture and the language, it was almost as if folks wanted some sort of brawl in the streets — I know police weren’t interested in that.
“We were interested in finding a way through this that was sensible, that was practical, but ultimately opened the road leading to the Ambassador Bridge because it is such a vital piece of economic infrastructure.”
Police cleared from the roadway on Feb. 13, making several arrests and towing some vehicles, and the bridge reopened shortly before midnight that day.
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The commission is expected to hear from 65 witnesses during its factual stage, including protest participants, law enforcement representatives, cabinet ministers, officials with provincial and municipal governments, and businesses and organizations affected by the protests.
The hearings began Oct. 13 in Ottawa and are scheduled to run until Nov. 25.
The City of Windsor is still awaiting reimbursement for expenses incurred during the blockade.
A long list of reports detailing how Windsor police handled the occupation made public through the hearings in Ottawa revealed the force spent more than $5.1 million responding to the protest.