Ottawa closes street along Parliament, mulls permanent change in wake of protest
By Laura Osman
OTTAWA — The three-week long protest that gripped the capital and prompted the invocation of the Emergencies Act has now sparked a call for permanent changes to security in the parliamentary precinct, including the closure of a major street to vehicle traffic.
After grappling with the city’s emergency response to the crisis, Mayor Jim Watson said Ottawa needs to consider changes to better protect local neighbourhoods and Parliament Hill.
“Every time there’s been a security breach on Parliament Hill, it’s acted as a catalyst for change,” Watson said at a council meeting Wednesday.
The National Capital Region needs to start looking at itself differently than any other part of the country, the city manager said.
While the city discussed changes to the Hill, Ontario police were monitoring camps where groups of demonstrators appear to have regrouped in small towns to the east and west of Ottawa, in Arnprior and Vankleek Hill, Ont.
The first change in Ottawa will be the temporarily closure of Wellington Street to traffic. The street, which runs directly along Parliament Hill, will stay closed until a new council is elected and the city can work out a plan with the federal government for changes to precinct security.
“We do not want, in the short term or long term, another caravan coming and invading this very important space that I consider the most important street in the country,” Watson said.
Police cleared the downtown Ottawa protest after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act last week. He revoked the emergency powers on Wednesday afternoon, saying order has been restored and the protest and other blockades are over.
Canada’s seat of power is remarkably accessible to the public, and situated closely to businesses and residential buildings. The front lawn of Centre Block is reachable on foot to protesters and picnickers alike, and Wellington Street serves as a major throughway for the core.
Since protesters were driven out the city, the parliamentary precinct, including Wellington Street, has been fenced off and accessible only to people who work in the area.
Downtown Ottawa Coun. Catherine McKenney put forward the idea to open discussions to transfer ownership of the street to the federal government, putting security for that area under national jurisdiction.
Wellington Street is flanked by Parliament Hill on one side, and the Prime Minister’s Office, the national press theatre, the Library of Parliament and other buildings of national significance on the other.
The councillor also suggested working with federal officials and the community to permanently close Wellington Street to all vehicles except public transit, pedestrians and cyclists.
During the demonstration “the entire responsibility really fell to the city to defend and protect Wellington Street,” McKenney told council Wednesday.
Wellington Street is under the care and control of the city, Public Services Minister Filomena Tassi said in a statement, but the idea of closing it has been one of the possibilities long contemplated as part of reimagining the precinct.
Similar changes were made to the stretch of Pennsylvania Ave. that runs in front of the White House in 1995, when the Oklahoma City bombing put the U.S. on alert to the perils of domestic terrorism. That closure was made permanent in the wake of the attacks on D.C. and New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, although pedestrians can still stroll the street.
Ottawa’s city manager said jurisdictional issues with security in Canada’s National Capital Region need to be rethought as well.
“You end up with a lag with respect to how quickly the various organizations have to get engaged,” city manager Steve Kanellakos said at a council meeting Wednesday.
Councillors floated the idea of developing a working group to modernize the various levels of government’s responsibility in a crisis in the capital, since jurisdictional scuffles became a stumbling block in the response to the demonstrations.
It isn’t the first time those time lags have been an issue, Kanellakos said. Similar frustrations were felt when downtown Ottawa was put into lockdown in 2014, when a shooter roamed the capital. He shot and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian soldier and reservist on ceremonial sentry duty at the National War Memorial, before entering the Parliament buildings.
All the while, Kanellakos, who led the city’s response at the time, said officials struggled to share information and co-ordinate between the different levels of government.
He said the National Capital Region should have a standing emergency plan that includes the city, provincial and federal governments, as well as possibly the city of Gatineau, Que., on the other side of the river.
There is a system in place to bring all the key players together, but it’s not formal and isn’t set up to respond to major events, said former Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau in an interview Wednesday.
“There’s no mechanism that, when it reaches a certain threshold, talks about joint command structures, unified command structures,” said Bordeleau, who now operates as a public safety consultant.
He said before governments can go about making major changes to the security of Parliament, they first need to think about what exactly they’re trying to solve.
“If you’re trying to prevent large trucks from driving on Wellington and parking? Well, yeah, closing it is a solution. Bollards at both ends is another solution, when you have a demonstration. Or just putting roadblocks,” he said.
The city has initiated a review of its own response to what officials have called an “occupation” of the capital, in hopes they’ll have some ideas about how to handle future demonstrations in time for the summer. The federal government is expected to launch an inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act which may offer up other ideas to improve the response to the next crisis.
— With files from James McCarten in Washington, D.C.