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thumb-2024-02-03-psac-ottawa-police This article is more than 1 month old
Analysis

Ottawa Police Using ‘Intimidation Tactics’ Against Striking Workers, Canada’s Biggest Federal Public Sector Union Says

Human rights advocates say labour leader’s recent arrest highlights ‘threatening and chilling’ trend by Ottawa Police

The arrest of a national labour leader by Ottawa Police last week is the culmination of a “threatening and chilling” trend of law enforcement stifling the right to protest in the nation’s capital, human rights advocates say.

Last week, Ottawa Police arrested labour leader Alex Silas during a press conference and rally in support of striking workers. Silas was released Wednesday with five criminal charges: Mischief, causing a disturbance by impeding, intimidation by blocking or obstructing the roadway, and counsel of an uncommitted indictable offense.

Silas is the Regional Executive Vice-President for the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s National Capital Region. Silas was supporting over 500 civilian military workers in the fifth week of their winter strike for better wages and job security. Silas’ arrest was met with outrage from PSAC, the Ottawa community and the broader labour movement.

“We see this arrest as an attack on workers,” National PSAC President Chris Aylward told PressProgress. “The Ottawa Police Service are using intimidation tactics, plain and simple. And that’s meant to demoralize and discourage striking workers.”

Ottawa Police have continued to intimidate workers, Aylward added, noting the OPS sent three police cruisers to monitor a peaceful information picket yesterday, though there were no arrests or charges.

“Police services and governments need to understand that people are going to continue to rise up until all workers – be it public sector, private sector, unionized, non-unionized – get what they deserve, and that’s fair wages and decent working conditions,” Aylward added.

The Ottawa Police posted a statement on Twitter on Monday, justifying arrest and criminal charges for protesters engaged in “disruptive activities.”

In a video statement made Wednesday, Silas vowed to fight his criminal charges in court with PSAC’s support.

“The right to strike and the right to protest are constitutionally protected and fundamental rights.” Silas said. “My arrest took place at a peaceful demonstration as part of a legal strike action of workers fighting for a fair contract.”

Silas also noted his arrest “raises some serious questions around concerning trends of policing in our city over the past few months when it comes to peaceful protesters.”

In recent months, Silas has also participated in Palestinian solidarity protests where City of Ottawa by-law officers faced criticism for repeatedly handing out $490 tickets to people using megaphones. Silas, alongside Ottawa-Centre MPP Joel Harden, received tickets for using megaphones in December.

Alex Neve, an Ottawa human rights lawyer and the former Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, says Ottawa Police’s justification for arresting Silas is “threatening and chilling.”

“The recent tweet from the Ottawa Police Service, I saw as something that is threatening and chilling of fundamental protest rights,” Neve told PressProgress. “With respect to what they describe as disruptive activities, the police are more than prepared now to move to even more heavy-handed action and to start criminally charging and arresting protesters.”

“All of which ignores and overlooks the fact that protest, at its best, is often disruptive by its very nature – of course it will be. Protest will be loud and raucous, protest will interfere with traffic, it will disrupt business activities. We know that and that’s well recognized with regard to international human rights standards dealing with protest rights.”

The Ottawa Police’s arrest of Silas and by-law officers’ aggressive ticketing of protesters with megaphones has inevitably drawn comparisons to the Ottawa Police’s lax handling of the 2022 Convoy occupation in Ottawa. This comparison has left some community members with the perception that the police have a double-standard when dealing with different protests.

Neve served as Commissioner of the Ottawa People’s Commission, a “grassroots effort to promote healing and justice after the convoy occupation of Ottawa-Gatineau in 2022.” The OPC held hearings where community members were able to share their experiences of the convoy occupation.

“It is in fact remarkable, and perhaps even unprecedented, the extent to which convoy participants were given near free rein to be where they wished and act as they wanted; very different from the experience of protesters in many other demonstrations in Ottawa and other parts of the country,” the Ottawa People’s Commission report noted.

The OPC report recommended the City of Ottawa develop a comprehensive policy for managing protests using a framework that balances the fundamental right to protest while protecting the human rights of community members.

“What we saw in February of 2022 and what we’re seeing in January, February of 2024, in both instances, reveals a profound lack of awareness of the fundamental human rights framework that needs to govern how police handle protest,” Neve said.

“We need to see that comprehensive policy framework established so that the police do start to get this right.”

Neve also noted it is concerning that progressive activists in the city have faced the brunt of this aggressive law enforcement.

“It does feel like there’s some sort of deliberate decision made at some level to start to target a particular constituency of protesters,” Neve said.

“That should always be deeply troubling, because the right to protest isn’t about whose views we agree with, who is or is not popular. It’s about some of the most essential human rights, we all have the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly.”

The OPC report also recommended strengthening police oversight and accountability, and investigating allegations that some Ottawa Police officers aided convoy organizers and ignored complaints from residents about the occupation.

Neve said neither recommendations have been addressed by the City of Ottawa or the Ottawa Police Service, adding concerned community members should bring the issue up with their city councilors.

Sam Hersh, a coordinator with local community group Horizon Ottawa, says Silas’ arrest and the ticketing of people using megaphones at peaceful protests is a “slippery slope” that deters people from exercising their rights.

“It’s really problematic, and I don’t really want to use the word scary, but it’s a huge slippery slope,” Hersh told PressProgress.

“They’re basically telling us that we’re not allowed to do anything if we want to go and support a progressive cause. And I think it has been vaguely progressive causes that have been particularly targeted.”

Hersh and Silas helped organize the first counter-protests of the Ottawa convoy occupation, including a community-led blockade to stop the flow of fuel and supplies to the convoy downtown. During that event, Hersh witnessed the police forcing community members to move out of the way and let a convoy truck pass through.

“They’re basically saying if you go out and you do something, there is a very high risk that you’ll get arrested or ticketed, right? Like through Alex’s arrest and especially through the megaphone ticketing,” Hersh said. “Like almost like 100% of the time at every protest, if someone uses a megaphone, someone is going to get a ticket.”

“It just seems like quite an escalation, all of this, because this was certainly not the case only a couple of months ago.”

 

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Emily Leedham
Reporter
Emily Leedham is PressProgress’ Prairies Reporter. Her reporting has a special focus on workers and communities, big money and corporate influence, and systemic racism.

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