The Canadian Armed Forces have acknowledged that at least six active soldiers are under investigation after they showed support for the protest against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 measures. It’s unclear how many of them have participated in the protests on Parliament Hill.
CBC News has confirmed a report in the Ottawa Citizen that two members under investigation are part of the JTF2 assault team, the elite counterterrorism unit of the Canadian Forces.
“If the allegations are accurate, this is wrong, and it goes against CAF values and ethics,” Maj.-Gen. Steve Boivin, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces, said in a statement.
This comes after another weekend of mass demonstrations in Ottawa that resembled a giant tailgate party. Organizers put up a large video screen, food tents and a hot tub outside the gates of Parliament Hill despite repeated statements by Ottawa police that they would crack down on the municipal bylaw violations that have disrupted the city for more than two weeks.
That was followed Monday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s invocation of the Emergencies Act, which allows him and the cabinet to take “special temporary measures” to cope with the protests. It’s the first time the act has been used.
Many of the people who support the convoy want COVID-19 restrictions removed, but some in the group of core organizers had previously called for the removal of Trudeau and floated the idea of forming a coalition with opposition parties.
WATCH | Trudeau explains why he invoked Emergencies Act:
Reservist opposed vaccination mandates on Tik Tok
In addition to the JTF2 members, also under investigation is Maj. Stephen Chledowski, an artillery officer in New Brunswick.
Last week, he posted a seven-minute video on social media calling vaccination “genocide” and urging other soldiers and police to rise up to fight pandemic restrictions.
He declined CBC’s request for an interview.
Riley Macpherson, a junior member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, is under investigation after expressing support for the Freedom Convoy and associated protests while dressed in his uniform.
The military is also investigating the actions of Warrant Officer James Topp from British Columbia, who plans to march to Ottawa to protest the federal COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
In a video posted on Tik Tok, the reservist, dressed in his uniform, said he works as a civilian for the RCMP but is on leave without pay “because I will not change my vaccination status.”
Neither Macpherson nor Topp responded to email requests for comment at time of publication.
Department of National Defence spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier said members of the CAF must remain impartial when communicating publicly and are not permitted to express their personal views when in uniform.
Veterans tear down National War Memorial fence
Last Friday, just hours after Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency expanding police powers, retired warrant officer Eddie Cornell, who served 30 years in the military, urged fellow veterans to join the protests.
“You have to be part of something bigger than yourself,” Cornell said in a YouTube video that was widely shared by convoy supporters and has nearly 700,000 views. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself in harm’s way like you did before … I’m calling ‘Stand to.'”
On Saturday, as the crowd of demonstrators on Parliament Hill swelled into the thousands, Cornell was among a group of veterans wearing medals and berets who were participating in the convoy demonstration. They removed the protective fencing around the National War Memorial. It had been put up after video surfaced of protesters dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Cornell told CBC News the fencing offended him.
“All the veterans here today find it extremely offensive to see a gate around a memorial for people that fought for our freedom 100 years ago,” he said. “It tells you we’re not free.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Cornell, who lives in Niagara Falls, Ont., left his military career as an artillery officer in 2013. He then joined the Ontario Provincial Police as a volunteer auxiliary officer to help with community outreach.
After tearing down the fence, Cornell and other veterans lingered around the memorial, taking photos with supporters.
Laurence MacAulay, minister of veterans affairs, called the actions of veterans at National War Memorial “disappointing”
Completely unacceptable. Fences were put up to prevent the flagrant desecration and disrespect of our sacred monuments. This behaviour is disappointing and I’m calling on protesters to respect our monuments. <a href=”https://t.co/MuZVatBxIq”>https://t.co/MuZVatBxIq</a>
Propaganda and expertise
One national security expert says the convoy organizers may be using former members of the military and police to give the movement a veneer of legitimacy.
“It’s not yet clear how [veterans] are using their professional skills in aiding the ongoing situation in Ottawa,” said Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who has focused on national security issues.
“At the very least, however, the convoy movement is able to use these videos as propaganda.”
Carvin cautions against ascribing too much capability to a “few veterans in a widely dispersed movement.”
But she said the organizers may be familiar with the tactics that could be used against them.
The Freedom Convoy’s leadership also includes a retired counterterrorism expert and a former RCMP officer who was part of a tactical unit that protected the prime minister.
Police on Guard, a law enforcement advocacy group that formed during the pandemic, has endorsed the convoy. Its website identifies more than 150 mostly retired Canadian police officers and 50 former soldiers who are against government-imposed measures to contain the spread of the novel coronaviruus.
Observers say that knowledge of police and military tactics in the convoy could help protesters dig in.
Kurt Phillips, a member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said demonstrators are able to “turn on a dime” in response to police tactics.
WATCH | Former Ottawa police chief on police response to convoy protests:
“This is much better organized than most protests I’ve seen,” said Phillips, who has been monitoring the online chatter of far-right groups that are participating in the protests.
He said there are indications that planning began eight months earlier under the pretext of removing mandates, but now, some of the rhetoric has shifted to “getting rid of the government.”
Following a CBC investigation into police and military experience within the convoy’s leadership, Ottawa’s police chief was asked if that had an impact on the response of his officers.
“There is no reluctance to be involved in enforcement efforts,” Chief Peter Sloly said Thursday. “We have been enforcing the law from Day 1, and we continue to do so as more resources become available.”
‘Abandoned by our institutions’
But what the police chief describes isn’t what Mustafa Farooq sees. Farooq, the CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said he’s felt under siege since the first transport trucks rolled into downtown Ottawa on Jan. 28.
“I was almost in tears because I feel like we’ve been abandoned by our institutions, just a few blocks away,” Farooq said.
Farooq’s office is two blocks south of Parliament Hill. On Friday, he said he watched from his window as an OPP officer allowed protesters to slide into the back seat of his squad car to take photos.
The OPP is aware of the video. A spokesperson said as part of their duties, front-line OPP officers are encouraged to balance the “professionalism required to ensure public safety … while having the discretion to be appropriately friendly or approachable.”
Farooq also said he has seen protesters hide dozens of canisters of fuel under transport trucks while officers stood by. Two days ago, he captured a photo of a group of people dancing around a police car with jerry cans.
Hi <a href=”https://twitter.com/OPSChiefSloly?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@OPSChiefSloly</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/OttawaPolice?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@OttawaPolice</a>:<br><br>I have been watching all day as officers drive by and literally watch the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/OttawaSiege?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#OttawaSiege</a> folks do their thing.<br><br>The messaging of “no fuel” is absolutely not the ground reality in any way shape or form.<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ottawa?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Ottawa</a> <a href=”https://t.co/TWx9uO5rUw”>pic.twitter.com/TWx9uO5rUw</a>
OPP Association president Rob Stinson sees it very differently. Stinson has been in Ottawa checking on his colleagues for the past two weeks. He said police are often prevented from intervening because they’re outnumbered.
He said that last Friday, a group of officers were surrounded by a crowd 10 times the size of the officer group as they tried to stop organizers from setting up an illegal tent near Parliament Hill.
“All of a sudden, 400 members of the public were surrounding the officers so they de-escalated and walked away for their own safety,” said Stinson.
Video captured by CBC shows about a dozen police officers gathering around two men setting up the metal posts of a large tent.
Then a crowd surrounds them, with some people starting to film on their phones. Others swear at police. As tension increases, about 30 more officers, trained in crowd control, step in to form a wall of yellow vests. Then the throng of protesters begin to sing O Canada. After a few minutes, the wall of officers breaks and they walk away.
WATCH | Police attempt to prevent protesters from setting up tent in downtown Ottawa:
“Some protesters are peaceful; some are here to cause chaos,” Stinson said.
He said there are approximately 200 provincial officers assisting Ottawa police, but more reinforcements are on the way now that the blockade of Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit is over.
Adding to the tensions is boldness among some protesters.
At least two videos have surfaced on social media of protesters trying to take the law into their own hands by declaring themselves “peace officers.”
The videos were filmed at the convoy’s logistics camp on Coventry Road, six kilometres east of Parliament Hill.
The camp funnels food and fuel to downtown protesters. Located beside a baseball stadium, the site has a volunteer security team and was raided by police last weekend in order to cut off the supply route.
In one video filmed at the Coventry camp, the voice of an unknown person speaking through a megaphone can be heard falsely granting dozens of demonstrators the right to make arrests.
“Our goal is to work with police forces and to ensure that they realize that they are not alone and that we do not look at them as the enemy but as other peace officers,” the voice is heard saying.
After that, the speaker says to the group, clad in tuques and winter coats: “Congratulations, you’re peace officers now.”
Police say the individuals could be charged with impersonating a real peace officer.
For Carvin, the national security expert, this is one more example of how the Freedom Convoy has morphed into something more dangerous than a protest against vaccine mandates.
“At the end of the day, this movement is full of the people here not for the mandates but for the mayhem.”
WATCH | How past police and military experience might factor in in convoy protests: