REACTION: Convoy of Confusion - Institute on Governance

REACTION: Convoy of Confusion

During the last weekend of January 2022, a convoy descended on Ottawa to protest mandatory vaccinations for truck drivers travelling across the Canada – United States Border.

The most troubling aspect of the “Truckers Convoy” for Canada and its democratic institutions is the potentially long-lasting effects of declining confidence in public institutions ability to respond to health and safety challenges and civil disobedience under the rule of law.

The Ottawa Police services are working to reassure the public that there have been no fatalities, injuries, or significant damage to property.

However, residents continue to be “under siege” and downtown business, already burdened with the stress of the pandemic, are forced to close.

Emerging evidence of foreign money and coordinated blockades disrupting trade and public services to citizens are creating a highly flammable environment.

With no visible end in sight, provincial and federal politicians continue to take to the microphone with calls of both support and condemnation of the actions of the protestors.

The public remains dissatisfied – why?

What we are seeing is a visible lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies and their elected leaders.  Public trust comes with public confidence.

As a public, we assume enforcement agencies are preparing their operational plans and understand why details of such plans are not public.

We also assume that all orders of government are working together to ensure a peaceful and permanent end to this occupation.

However, public officials at any level of government have not referred to any semblance of a plan. Further troubling is that the Ottawa Police Service seems to be on their own with no obvious evidence of others standing by to assist in a coordinated fashion. Seven days in, there is a growing unease that these assumptions may be misplaced.

It remains unclear whether, when and how the occupation will end. 

The mayor points to the police. The police are now signalling the situation is escalating in its complexity to resolve with each passing day.

With no sense of ‘what comes next’, growing anxiety among citizens and the business, community is beginning to erode trust in our institutions.

With an already growing erosion of public trust in western democracies, what are the operational leaders doing to assure the public that there is an end in sight?

Without a public plan, we must ask ourselves – what is happening in the background?

To re-establish trust and confidence, there needs to be a sense of organization and structure among public officials.  This could involve the mayor asking the Chief of Police to work with federal and provincial law enforcement agencies to establish an inter-agency working group. The working group would help ensure information, planning and coordination among these agencies was clear, efficient, and timely.  The details of such need not be communicated but the request to ‘organize’ should be.

The mayor could also call on the other levels of government to support the inter-agency working group by forming an ad-hoc intergovernmental committee involving himself, and relevant federal and provincial ministers. 

Typically, this body would ensure elected officials both receive the same information at the same time as well keep their internal decision-making processes engaged as necessary as the issue evolves.

Next, there needs to be one official spokesperson. Support spokespersons can be designated from each level of government to speak on specific aspects, but it needs to be coordinated.

It’s important for elected leaders to know who’s on first and who gets to speak to what and on what issues.  For the most part, this often results in a boring talking point that “I am aware of the issue and my officials are monitoring closely and we have assured local law enforcement that we are ready to support as circumstances warrant.”

Daily briefings to the media and public would be coordinated. In this scenario, the Prime Minster would repeat this message and possibly refer all matters to his appointed Minister who would coordinate with the mayor and provincial representative.

Plans can change with circumstances but with the right systems in place intelligent adjustments can be made and communicated effectively.  This is essential in maintaining public trust.

While the underlying issues that gave rise to the protest will likely require significant debate and policy discussions among the politicians over the medium to longer term, the respect for the rule of law and dealing with civil disobedience need to be handled lawfully by the enforcement community guided by an informed plan with an engaged elected leadership. 

At the end of the day, this is an issue of public trust.

Transparency and clear accountability are two defining factors of good governance, which ultimately contributes to this trust.

Regardless of what comes next, officials need to prepare the public for enforcement actions that are necessary and legitimate.  Failure to do so will further undermine trust in government, as well as trust in our democracy, and give the protestors an even greater advantage.

More than ever, our society needs strong leaders to make hard choices under even tougher circumstances. Our Leadership and Learning Courses can help you prepare for those decisions.

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