Understanding the Ottawa Occupation: Mayor Watson is a Genius!

  • National Newswatch

Like many in Ottawa, I've been struggling to understand what went on in our downtown core. Why did Mayor Jim Watson seem so determined to oversee what looks like the most spectacularly inept crisis responses in the City's history?I think I've finally cracked the puzzle.I went for a wander through post-Emergency Act Wellington Street on what would be the last Wednesday evening of the occupation. The scene was remarkable.My adventure started at a slowly simmering dance party just steps from the Rideau Centre. Wandering towards the Hill I encountered a piece of installation art – a pickup truck up on blocks, decorated with citizen graffiti and festooned in the flags of the different foreign nationals who had joined the urban encampment. At the top of Metcalfe Street I found a beguiling mix of entertainment options: a quasi-religious revival ceremony set to the dulcet tones of a revving Mac truck, an open game of 'keep it up' (with a soccer ball), and a series of campfires for sing-a-longs. A bit further down Wellington closer to the Supreme Court things were quieter. There were spots for serious drinking and deep political discussion of the sort favoured by philosophers such as Marx back in his day. This area was also where you go to get a meal. A 'soup kitchen' was feeding the weary with vittles that, judging by the smell from the pot, might be some of the best eats in town.There was, however, one other thing I really only noticed for first time that night, but in retrospect it was something I saw every time I have visited the Parliamentary precinct in the last three weeks.Tourists!The place was crawling with tourists breathlessly livestreaming 'from the front lines', travelling in small nervous packs clutching their backpacks, giggling with the naughtiness of sneaking into the 'enemy' camp.Then it struck me: Mayor Watson is a genius!Civil servants in town have always joked about Ottawa being Disneyland on the Rideau. It looks a lot like Watson's plan was to secretly embrace this idea and make it reality. After all, what better way to get bodies back on hotel beds and customers into downtown businesses during a pandemic than to turn the city centre into one big political amusement park? Or maybe it was supposed to be a giant piece of citizen-enacted performance art. Either way, it doesn't matter. Watson's plan was inspired! And the best part for us tax-payers? He almost succeeded in getting the Feds to pay for it all with the Emergency Act!!!Of course, Watson had to keep all this on the down low. If word got out the whole plan would have collapsed. Perhaps that is why he staged an auto-golpe last Wednesday night by seizing control of the Ottawa Police Services Board. It also probably why he and City Manager Steve Kanellakos have gone after local residents who stood up and actively resisted the occupying forces.What our Mayor likely forgot is that his is not the only devious mind in town. Did he forget about the most Machiavellian of local actors, the National Capital Commission? Odds are they sussed out his plan and were scheming to take over. We also shouldn't forget the National Gallery. They may well have been quietly making a bid for control with the argument that since there was no Ferris wheel or roller coaster the Wellington Street disorder was really a subtle piece of interactive installation art. Frankly, I probably would have thrown my vote behind the Gallery in a power struggle. After all, art gallery security guards seem to be far more empowered to protect their wards than the members of the Ottawa Police Services were under Watson's mayorship.If I am right about Watson's plan it means I did not need to worry about inconveniences like neo-nazi fascists circling city schools and yelling at children for responsibly wearing masks to protect each other. After all, the alternative would have been that the Mayor was so incompetent as to approach duplicitousness. Surely, that would compel even the most base political animal to immediately resign? And Watson hasn't resigned.It took me a while to twig to this truly complex, multilayered thing of genius in action. Watson almost pulled it off, but it looks like he may have been a victim of his own success. For the Feds, quietly supporting Watson with inaction was one thing, but countenancing the greatest of sins I Ottawa – public infighting between federal agencies for control of a spectacle – was clearly letting things go too far. Worse, it was increasingly becoming apparent that Watson was never going to acknowledge his plan. If it went wrong that would mean that Watson would have to accept accountability, which is just so passé in politics these days.With these risks in mind action had become imperative for Cabinet. The Emergency Act was pushed through, the RCMP called in, and the streets cleared with a speed Watson had ensured Ottawans was impossible.Cracking the code at the conclusion of this affair has left me feeling conflicted. I'm simultaneously comforted that our city is in the competent hands of a mastermind, but also grappling with the disquieting realization that his plan has demonstrated how completely Ottawa has been set adrift not just by Watson, but also by Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Would that they all follow the example of former Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, accept responsibility for their catastrophic failures, and resign.Sean Burges is a Senior Instructor in Global and International Studies at Carleton University and a Senior Fellow with the democracy think tank Demos.