Council OKs aid package for downtown businesses, temporary closure of Wellington Street

Freedom Convoy trucks
Protests against vaccine mandates that closed downtown streets for weeks have dealt a severe economic blow to many local merchants, business advocates say. File photo

Ottawa city council Wednesday unanimously approved a series of measures aimed at helping businesses affected by the “Freedom Convoy” occupation, including nearly half a million dollars in grants for downtown BIAs to market their neighbourhoods.

Council endorsed a motion from councillors Eli El-Chantiry and Mathieu Fleury to provide $450,000 in grants to BIAs in areas affected by the three-week protests against vaccine mandates. 

Other measures that got the green light include a proposal to have city staff look at deferring interim property tax payments for businesses in the protest zone. Council also approved a $50,000 contribution to the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition to help promote live venues and a proposal to extend free fares on the LRT system until 30 days after the state of emergency ends. 

Council also voted 16-7 in favour of a plan to offer free parking at municipal lots and garages in the downtown core until the end of March.

The protest that gripped the capital and prompted the invocation of the Emergencies Act also sparked a call for permanent changes to security in the parliamentary precinct, including the closure of a major street to vehicle traffic.

After grappling with the city's emergency response to the crisis, Mayor Jim Watson said Ottawa needs to consider changes to better protect local neighbourhoods and Parliament Hill.

"Every time there's been a security breach on Parliament Hill, it's acted as a catalyst for change."

“Every time there's been a security breach on Parliament Hill, it's acted as a catalyst for change,” Watson said at Wednesday’s council meeting.

The National Capital Region needs to start looking at itself differently than any other part of the country, the city manager said.

While the city discussed changes to the Hill, Ontario police were monitoring camps where groups of demonstrators appear to have regrouped in small towns to the east and west of Ottawa, in Arnprior and Vankleek Hill.

The first change in Ottawa will be the temporary closure of Wellington Street to traffic. The street will stay closed until a new council is elected and the city can work out a plan with the federal government for changes to precinct security.

“We do not want, in the short term or long term, another caravan coming and invading this very important space that I consider the most important street in the country,'' Watson said.

Police cleared the downtown Ottawa protest after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act last week. He revoked the use of the act on Wednesday afternoon, saying order has been restored and the protest and other blockades are over.

Since protesters were driven out the city, the parliamentary precinct, including Wellington Street, has been fenced off and accessible only to people who work in the area.

Permanent closure eyed

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, whose ward includes Parliament Hill, put forward the idea to open discussions to transfer ownership of the street to the federal government, putting security for that area under national jurisdiction.

The councillor also suggested working with federal officials and the community to permanently close Wellington Street to all vehicles except public transit, pedestrians and cyclists.

During the demonstration “the entire responsibility really fell to the city to defend and protect Wellington Street,” McKenney told council Wednesday.

Wellington Street is under the care and control of the city, Public Services Minister Filomena Tassi said in a statement, but the idea of closing it has been one of the possibilities long contemplated as part of reimagining the precinct.

Ottawa's city manager said jurisdictional issues with security in the National Capital Region need to be rethought as well.

“You end up with a lag with respect to how quickly the various organizations have to get engaged,” Steve Kanellakos said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Councillors floated the idea of developing a working group to modernize the various levels of government's responsibility in a crisis in the capital, since jurisdictional scuffles became a stumbling block in the response to the demonstrations.

Kanellakos said the National Capital Region should have a standing emergency plan that includes the city, provincial and federal governments, as well as possibly the city of Gatineau.

There is a system in place to bring all the key players together, but it's not formal and isn't set up to respond to major events, said former Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau in an interview Wednesday.

“There's no mechanism that, when it reaches a certain threshold, talks about joint command structures, unified command structures,” said Bordeleau, who now operates as a public safety consultant.

He said before governments can go about making major changes to the security of Parliament, they first need to think about what exactly they're trying to solve.

“If you're trying to prevent large trucks from driving on Wellington and parking? Well, yeah, closing it is a solution. Bollards at both ends is another solution, when you have a demonstration. Or just putting roadblocks,” he said.

The city has initiated a review of its own response to the protests in hopes they'll have some ideas about how to handle future demonstrations in time for the summer. The federal government is expected to launch an inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act which may offer up other ideas to improve the response to the next crisis.

–  With additional reporting from the Canadian Press