In the wake of their heavily criticized handling of the so-called Freedom Convoy, the abrupt resignation of Police Chief Peter Sloly, city council’s firing of the police board chair, and a pattern of officer misconduct—Ottawa city police are reeling.

But well before the anti-vaccine mandate convoy rocked Ottawa and put the embattled police force under a national microscope, locals were pushing for major changes to the Ottawa Police Service (OPS). Now that the convoy has departed, local activists are at work pushing candidates for city council to take a stance towards defunding and detasking Ottawa police.

In December, protesters staged a sit-in at Ottawa City Hall and urged council not to approve an OPS budget increase. Megaphones in hand, they demanded funding be redirected to the city’s chronically underfunded social programing, like affordable housing. 

Weeks earlier, members of grassroots groups gathered outside the OPS headquarters and blocked a major intersection and highway on-ramp to demand a freeze to the force’s budget. 

While the convoy showed how Ottawa police respond to mostly white protesters compared to Black and Indigenous folks, some saw the OPS “acting exactly as expected” in response to the far-right-led occupation of Ottawa’s downtown.

“[The] OPS, like all police forces in Canada, has always had one mandate: protect the powerful—or at least don’t get in their way,” community organizer Robin Browne,  co-founder of 613-819 Black Hub, wrote in February. “And the thousands of mostly white convoy protesters, and the organizers with their millions in the bank, were the powerful.”

Ottawa police came under fire over their handling of the so-called Freedom Convoy in February, a controversy that led to the resignation of Police Chief Peter Sloly and the ousting of Ottawa Police Services Board Chair Diane Deans. Photo: Justin Brake.

The protests came after months of mounting pressure on the city and the Ottawa Police Services Board. But none of these actions was enough to stop the city council from increasing the police budget by $11.35 million in 2022—a 2 per cent increase instead of the earlier proposed 3 per cent hike.

Horizon Ottawa, a grassroots collective that advocates for progressive municipal policies, called the move a “half measure,” saying in a press release that it “doesn’t go far enough to further real community safety.”

Ottawa organizer Sam Hersh, a board member with Horizon Ottawa, said while the organization was disappointed, the 1 per cent reduction from the requested increase “shows that when community members come together and speak out, it has an effect on those in power.”

Echoing a call made in cities across Canada, Ottawa activists say that with greater divestment from its police force the city could buttress supports and infrastructure that prevent crime and reduce street-level interactions between police and community members.

City elections and the push to defund police

With roughly half of Canadians in support of defunding the police, Ottawa organizers say October’s municipal election could usher in a mayor and council  majority who support the defund movement’s objectives.

Former mayor Bob Chiarelli and current city councillors Diane Deans and Catherine McKenney are so far the only three mayoral candidates. Chiarelli, who held office from 2001 to 2006, oversaw a 1.3 per cent increase of the OPS’s gross budget in proportion to the total city budget during his tenure. 

Deans, who chaired the Ottawa Police Services Board from 2018 until her ousting in February, presented a unanimously-supported motion during the 2022 budget vote to redirect $550,000 to the development of an alternative call referral program. “Police often do not have the training needed to respond to these calls,” she said, “and in responding to these calls police services are being used to address social issues that could be better responded to by someone else.” On February 16, in the midst of the convoy occupation, Deans was unseated from the police services board following the board’s controversial hiring of an interim police chief one day after Sloly’s resignation.

In October 2020 McKenney supported a motion to limit OPS funding in 2021 to a 1.5 per cent increase and redirect the savings to public health. The motion was voted down. Two months later they brought a motion to council recommending a $13.2 million investment—the same amount requested by OPS for the 2021 budget—in affordable housing, social supports for marginalized communities, and community-based harm reduction initiatives and other alternatives to policing. “We cannot continue to defund health, social services and housing while increasing funding to police,” McKenney wrote at the time. 

While grassroots organizations aren’t yet officially endorsing McKenney, the councillor’s promise to democratize the budget process has perked ears. 

“At the end of the day, we want to elect representatives and a mayor who respects the wants and needs of social movements and residents of the city, and values a more democratic budget process,” says Hersh.

A more collaborative budgeting process could open up funding for projects like a non-police mental health crisis response strategy and other initiatives that would reduce demands on Ottawa police and create a safer city for residents.

In the absence of public involvement in budget decisions, council could continue to increase police funding despite the rallying cries from grassroots groups to do the opposite.

“The impact of you giving the cops an $11 million increase was to send a very clear message to us: ‘Shut up, and continue being hurt and killed,’” Browne told the Ottawa Police Services Board in December. “Well, we don’t plan to do either of those things.”

Browne cautioned the board: “Just as we did when we occupied city hall during the budget vote, we plan to keep making lots of noise from now right up until next year’s election.” 

Community groups map an alternative path

At just over $375 million, the Ottawa police budget is 15 times the meager $25 million in municipal funding that nearly 100 community-based organizations in the city will split in 2022.

With an annual budget in excess of a third of a billion dollars, the OPS notoriously targets and harasses racialized communities. In the past few years, Ottawa police have conducted live explosive trainings in immigrant neighborhoods, handcuffed and held Black youth gathered for a film and music video at gunpoint, and arrested Black and Indigenous activists engaged in peaceful protest.

The OPS track record with wellness checks and residents experiencing mental health crises is abysmal. Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian, was killed by Ottawa police in 2016. Three years later, in 2019, 30-year-old Ojibway man ​​Greg Ritchie was shot and killed by two Ottawa police officers

In January 2020 Ottawa’s city council declared a housing crisis. Organizers say the number of people sleeping on the street has since doubled. Residents who sleep and live in public spaces are more likely to engage regularly with police since activities associated with homelessness are often criminalized. 

This year, Ottawa will invest $17 million in affordable housing, but instead of guaranteeing low income tenants have dignified housing, this funding is destined to ensure landlords receive market rent. Investing in life-saving services, such as a Housing First program, could provide safe shelter for those experiencing addiction or fleeing abuse.

Decriminalizing minor offenses, through federal legislation such as the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, could reduce police presence around safe consumption sites and shelters. Implementing preventive urban design, like speed bumps and stop signs, could curb dangerous driving and limit the need for officers to engage in traffic stops.

These are just a few of the ideas to emerge from engaged residents.

In its 2022 alternative budget, the Ottawa Coalition for a People’s Budget suggests divesting more than $240 million from policing and investing more in community-based crisis-response teams, affordable housing, food subsidies, free therapy and counseling, and other social programming. 

While the Ottawa Police Services Board has limited budgetary control over the force’s $300 million to fund salaries, millions are allocated for receptions, dry cleaning, membership fees, recruitment, and other miscellaneous line items. Advocates say these discretionary expenses are not essential and the funding could better serve the community if invested in harm reduction. 

Last year, community groups co-drafted a non-police mental health crisis response strategy in consultation with frontline responders and those with lived experience.

Defund advocates say redirecting money for policing to social supports and infrastructure will reduce the need for policing in the first place. Photo: Justin Brake.

Alternatives for a Safer Ottawa advocates for a humane approach to community care. The authors adopt a public health approach based on an understanding “that to maintain and improve the health of the city’s population, the social and environmental determinants of health, social justice and equity must be addressed.”

Rather than criminalizing and institutionalizing those experiencing mental illness, the report lays out how first responders could provide culturally appropriate and trauma-informed support. Crisis calls, for example, would be answered by “trained and experienced BIPOC mental health professionals, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers with various lived experiences.” 

Toronto recently launched its first non-police mental health crisis response team focused on de-escalation and harm reduction. 911 calls that meet certain criteria are transferred to a line staffed by nurses and mental health counselors. This initiative costs Toronto $11 million, equivalent to the Ottawa Police Service’s 2022 budget increase.

Detasking the Ottawa police by reducing the scope of its purview—and thus its budget—is doable, according to the Ottawa Coalition for a People’s Budget. Their proposals are not new, after all, but “grounded in evidence from other jurisdictions to prove that they are both possible and effective.”

Halifax organizers recently published an ambitious blueprint for defunding the police in Canada, for example. And in several Canadian cities, the defund movement is forcing police chiefs and municipal leaders to start thinking differently.

Mayor Watson—who recently chastised Black and Indigenous activists for engaging in peaceful protest—believes a cut to the police force budget would affect frontline services. But economist Inez Hillel, co-founder of the consulting company Vivic Research, says defunding, if done properly, would mean fewer police frontline services would be needed in the first place. 

“Freezing the budget doesn’t mean there’ll be no one available when you need help. If it’s reinvested wisely, it could mean that fewer people need help,” Hillel says. “Or, better, people receive the help they are deserving of.”

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