By Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Protesters opposing COVID-19 restrictions who blocked off streets in downtown Winnipeg earlier this year cost police nearly half a million dollars.
Data obtained by The Canadian Press through freedom-of-information requests shows the nearly three-week demonstration had a $484,806 policing price tag. The vast majority — $319,547 — was for on-duty salaries for officers.
“The police service is paying those officers to be on duty, regardless,” Supt. Dave Dalal said.
That means, Dalal said, those officers were redirected from other duties, such as traffic control or problem solving in neighbourhoods. But it did not cost citizens extra money, he said.
Another $150,463 was spent on overtime salary. A total of 466 policing hours were tallied during the protests.
It cost $3,908 to operate the police service’s helicopter. Police also spent $10,254 on things such as barriers, fences and removing vehicles.
A group of vehicles, including a handful of semi-trailers and some farm equipment, began occupying a block of Memorial Boulevard, just outside the main entrance to the legislature grounds, on Feb. 4. They raised a giant American and Canadian flag and had signs calling for freedom from mandates.
The group blared horns and even used a train horn to make significant noise in the downtown area.
The group departed 19 days later after police issued an ultimatum that protesters could face charges or have their vehicles and other assets seized if they did not remove them.
At the time, the Manitoba government had already announced plans to lift almost all its pandemic restrictions.
Dalal said police approached the protesters in the same way they would any large-scale demonstration. They also had warning about what could happen, he said, because the Ottawa “Freedom Convoy” protest had already begun.
“We certainly had a view of what this could grow into,” he said.
Police identified organizers early and communicated with them to maintain public safety, Dalal said.
He said police believed that if all the trucks were removed on the first day, it would have been a larger challenge than negotiating with protesters over time.
While there was round-the-clock surveillance, many of the costs were associated with two weekends when counter protests were set to take place, he said.
There have not been a lot of prolonged protests in Winnipeg to compare costs, Dalal said. Winnipeg police always review operations to determine what could have been done differently or better, he added.
The bill for Winnipeg police is much less than the $35-million price tag associated with policing the three-week long occupation in Ottawa that same month.
That occupation, as well as a protest at the border in Coutts, Alta., prompted the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time. It ended after hundreds of officers from police forces throughout Canada moved in to disperse the crowds, making dozens of arrests.
The Winnipeg police response was more muted than expected, especially considering what was happening in the nation’s capital, said Frank Cormier, a criminology professor at the University of Manitoba.
Cormier did not see a compelling reason to allow the Winnipeg protesters to establish a presence for so long.
“Once protesters are able to become that dug in … then it becomes far harder to remove them,” he said.
“The longer they occupy an area, the more they feel entitled to be in that area. It can almost legitimize in the protesters minds that they have every right to be there.”
However, Cormier added, the costs associated with policing don’t seem excessive.
“At first glance, I thought we got off light compared to other places,” he said.
Kevin Walby, a criminal justice professor at the University of Winnipeg, said all those funds are better used elsewhere in the city.
“I just think of how starved for resources our city is,” he said.
He said it felt as though police acted as a buffer for the protesters, despite the group continuously violating bylaws and provincial laws.
Walby said the protesters should look at what their demonstration cost, adding it didn’t achieve anything.
“You can see it’s a really selfish sucking up of resources.”