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A dark-haired man in a blue suit is seen on a witness stand with the blurred backs of spectators in the foreground.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness on the final day of the Public Order Emergency Commission hearings in Ottawa. on Nov. 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The Emergencies Act inquiry revealed a disturbing disregard of the public interest

The Public Order Emergency Commission into the use of the Emergency Act has ended. The mandated hearings were looking into whether invoking the act was justified to end the so-called freedom convoy protest in Ottawa in February 2022 — and they raised serious questions about protecting the public interest.

Where was the Ottawa Police Services Board when the occupation of the city dragged on for weeks? What were the terms of Peter Sloly’s resignation as Ottawa police chief? Did both the police force’s management and the board responsible for overseeing the force fail?

The commission hearings were astonishing in what they revealed about how the public interest was seemingly disregarded throughout the crisis, illuminating serious governance issues.

A protest drinks Gatorade from a fuel container with the Peace Tower in the background.
A protester drinks red Gatorade from a fuel container as a joke for onlookers during the ‘freedom convoy’ protest in Ottawa in February 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Board failed to do its job

When there is a deficit or gap in governance, organizational dysfunction often follows, increasing costs and causing reputational damage as the dysfunction continues.

It shouldn’t be that way. We cannot rely on a commission of inquiry — after the fact — to fix the past nor on government oversight to fix things as they break down. That’s the job of boards with oversight authority and responsibility.

S&P Global research states that “understanding governance risks and opportunities in decision-making is critical, as poor corporate governance practices have stood at the core of some of the biggest corporate scandals.”

In corporate governance, there is supposed to be oversight over all executives by watchdog bodies or regulatory enforcement agencies. No executive — whether it’s a CEO, board director or president — has a free rein with no accountability. Any board is supposed to be accountable to those who elected it and to consider the interests of all stakeholders.

In the case of the prolonged trucker protest on Parliament Hill, the Ottawa Police Services Board was responsible for overseeing the actions of the Ottawa police force and its chief, Peter Sloly.

A man in a dark blue suit speaks into a microphone.
Former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa in October 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Must act honestly, in good faith

Each Ottawa Police Services Board member has a fiduciary duty to act honestly and in good faith, while exercising a high standard of care that involves oversight responsibility and accountability. This begs the question: did the Ottawa Police Services Board lack the will to get fully involved?

While the board cannot and should not be involved in operational decisions, it must oversee the performance of the entire police force. It must do more than hire and fire the police chief.

What oversight did the Ottawa Police Services Board provide during the trucker protest crisis so that it might have been avoided in the first place — and so that the public interest was prioritized?

There’s considerable confusion about the role, responsibilities and accountability of the board. Currently, its mission statement says board members must “represent community interests and are accountable to the Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission located in Toronto.”

This suggests it could be the City of Ottawa, possibly City Council, that’s accountable to Ottawa taxpayers and not the Ottawa Police Services Board. It’s not clear from the board’s selection process whether it’s a public agency with reporting responsibility to the province or to the people of Ottawa.

The mission statement does clearly state, however, that “the Chief of Police is responsible for administering the Police Service and overseeing its operation in accordance with the objectives, priorities and policies established by the Board.”

A grey-haired man with a beard speaks into a microphone and is seen in profile.
Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, speaks to reporters during a news conference in Ottawa in the midst of the trucker protest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Sloly’s resignation

But there was no transparency about the terms of Sloly’s resignation as well as the recruitment of a new police chief without an open competition for the job.

It’s unknown who, apart from members of the Ottawa Police Services Board, took part in these firing and hiring decisions. A quick media scan turns up little coverage raising questions about this lack of information.

A man speaks standing in front of a insignia that makes it look as though he has a crown on his head.
Eric Stubbs, seen here when he was with the RCMP in British Columbia, is the new Ottawa police chief. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Sloly held the job for less than two years on a five-year contract with the City of Ottawa. It’s unknown whether he was paid out for the full five-year term and if the use of taxpayer dollars, if so, was above board.

While that absence of information might be due to confidentiality or legal reasons, those circumstances should have been made clear to the public in such a high-profile case.

There was an equal dearth of information about the resignation of the former deputy police chief, Uday Jaswal, in February 2022. He was nearly two years into a suspension over a sexual harassment charge.

Principles of good governance needed

The Ottawa Police Services Board cannot and should not operate in secret but in the public interest, regardless of whether the public approves of its decisions. Embarrassment is not an excuse for the absence of disclosure.

Executive compensation disclosure is mandatory for public companies. Regulators and public agencies should not have a lower standard of disclosure and accountability than any other organization. Quite the opposite.

In the public sector especially, adherence to governance standards should always be the best possible, but all too often the opposite is true.

Principles of good governance, including accountability and transparency, must apply to all organizations, both private and public — including the Ottawa Police Services Board and any other body that oversees organizations that are so critical to public well-being.

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