OTTAWA – The secure perimeter around downtown Ottawa, guarded by police checkpoints, will remain through the weekend as the local police force tries to maintain peace and order in Canada’s capital city without the extra powers they were granted through the Emergencies Act.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday the extraordinary, time-limited powers brought in last week to respond to protests and blockades against COVID-19 restrictions and the Liberal government would be pulled back now that the immediate crisis is over.
Interim Ottawa police Chief Steve Bell said Thursday that stoked some initial concern among the upper ranks of the police force about how they would keep demonstrators out of the city.
The powers proved valuable in helping police dislodge the massive demonstration that had gridlocked downtown Ottawa after three weeks, Bell said, including by allowing police to designate a no-go zone around Parliament Hill.
The area remains fenced off to anyone who does not live or work there, with police checkpoints dotting the downtown core.
Bell said the checkpoints will stay through the weekend, but police will only intervene in cases where people are taking part in illegal activity, such as blocking streets.
One of the main tools stemming from the Emergencies Act that police relied on, Bell said, was the ability to direct financial institutions to freeze the accounts of people who refused to leave the protest zone downtown. He said the threat was a powerful incentive for people to leave.
Now that the demonstrators are gone, Bell said police no longer need that power.
“There are still financial investigations that will go on,” he said.
Some demonstrators, and their trucks, have decamped to farmers’ fields, small towns and truck stops in rural areas surrounding Ottawa, and Bell said police have a new plan to prevent them from regaining a foothold should they decide to return to the city.
While the powers under the Emergencies Act have been lifted, questions remain about the long-term effects of invoking such extraordinary measures to quell protests.
The financial measures carried out under the act have been a particular target for criticism and one watcher warns the damage will linger long after the initial protests are finished.
Financial intelligence expert Kim Manchester says that banks will likely keep tracking those individuals flagged by the RCMP and their names could end up on private-sector third-party databases that banks rely on to mitigate anti-money laundering and terrorist financing.
Banks and other financial institutions were also directed to look into whether any clients seemed to be supporting the protests, and those monitoring actions could well continue, he said.
On a larger scale, Manchester says that the actions set a dangerous precedent for how government decides to go after protests, and leaves open the door to using the same tactics in the future.
He says allies will also be watching how the federal government used Fintrac and compare the actions against the protesters to the relatively few resources directed to financial crime generally.
“There are lasting consequences to this. You don’t just pull out a fountain pen and sign a piece of paper and hope that it all goes away. It doesn’t work like that,” said Manchester, managing director of financial intelligence training company ManchesterCF.
For its part, the Canadian Bankers Association said that financial institutions moved quickly to unfreeze accounts after the RCMP cleared the individuals and entities flagged for concern, but that some accounts may still be frozen.
“While most customer accounts have been unfrozen, it is important to remember that some accounts may be frozen for a variety of other reasons, including to comply with court orders or proceedings related to illegal activities or other unrelated legal matters,” said spokesman Mathieu Labreche, who declined to comment specifically on the lifting of the Emergency Act.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2022.