If downtown Ottawa residents and businesses who say they suffered through loud honking and diesel fumes during the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” are awarded any money in their ongoing class action against organizers of the 2022 protest, the convoy organizers want Ottawa’s police board to pay it.
It’s a potentially big tab for the Ottawa Police Services Board that governs the force and approves its budgets. The plaintiffs in the Zexi Li class action, which has not yet been certified, are seeking $290 million.
Lawyers for Tamara Lich, Chris Barber and 10 other defendants in the class action have filed a third-party claim against the police board. It was issued by Superior Court this week.
They allege the police response to the protest was negligent and that because of the force’s negligence, the police board should be on the hook for any losses or damages.
They claim that except for “a small number” of fewer than 40 tractor-trailers on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill, there was no plan to clog Ottawa’s downtown with vehicles.
According to the claim, it was Ottawa police who directed them to park on residential downtown streets.
Police ‘decided to change the plan’
The original plan was to stage the vehicles on Wellington and on “lengthy designated stretches” of the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway (now renamed Kichi Zībī Mīkan) to the west and the Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway to the east, the claim states.
“But for some reason, the Ottawa police decided to change the plan,” said James Manson, one of the lawyers representing the convoy organizers, this week.
“And so our argument will be that if that had not taken place, if the trucks had parked where they all had understood they were going to park, then there wouldn’t have been any trucks downtown, and therefore there couldn’t have been a nuisance caused the way that the plaintiffs are claiming it.”
The third-party claim also alleges police were negligent when they:
- Became overwhelmed with the number of vehicles despite organizers’ efforts to warn them.
- Failed to read intelligence reports, watch the news or review other reporting that “widely recognized the size and scale of the protest (or, that police were aware but chose to disregard it).
- Failed to mount an adequate plan.
- Put “inexperienced officers in leadership positions.”
- And did not direct vehicles to leave downtown “when it became known they would not leave” on their own (or that police didn’t do so in a timely manner).
Both the Ottawa Police Services Board and Ottawa Police Service declined to comment. The board has 20 days to respond to the third-party claim once it’s served, which could take up to 30 days.
‘An interesting legal manoeuvre’
Paul Champ, the lawyer representing Zexi Li and the other plaintiffs in the class action, thinks the arguments in the claim are a bit rich.
It’s true that Ottawans were angry with police during the protest and repeatedly said they felt the force wasn’t protecting them, he said.
“But I’m not sure if it necessarily is the place of the protesters themselves to say, ‘Well, [police] made me do it,'” Champ added.
“We did see a little bit of that in the Public Order Emergency Commission, that the police had in fact escorted them downtown and given them areas to park. And no doubt the people of Ottawa were very upset about that, so it’s an interesting legal manoeuvre.
“I’m not sure if it necessarily flies to blame someone else for your own unlawful activity, but we’ll see how the Ottawa police respond.”
As for the allegation that police didn’t direct protesters to leave, Champ said it’s “patently untrue” that no one did.
“I don’t think it could have been any clearer that these these folks were behaving unlawfully and that they had passed the threshold of a peaceful assembly,” he said.
Manson, the lawyer for the convoy organizers, said he’s not aware of any evidence suggesting Ottawa police “directed the truckers to leave in the same way that they directed them to park,” and that if such evidence exists, police can raise it in discovery if they choose.