The public inquiry must determine whether Trudeau was justified in using the act. To date, it has heard and seen considerable evidence casting doubt on the Liberal government’s decision.
Police agencies have testified the emergency powers weren’t necessary to end the protest of pandemic public health measures. Senior government officials were shown to have harbored doubts. And perhaps most damaging to the government’s case was a revelation last week that Canada’s national intelligence agency did not find the protests posed a threat to Canada’s security.
In the final week of hearings, it will fall to Trudeau and several of his ministers and senior staff to prove their case: that they needed unprecedented measures to deal with an unprecedented situation.
Protesters near Parliament Hill hold signs condemning the vaccine mandates imposed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 5 in Ottawa.
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images
The so-called Freedom Convoy protest made international headlines after hundreds of trucks rolled into downtown Ottawa in late January, occupying the city’s downtown core and disrupting life for residents.
The protest was a reaction to Trudeau’s decision to mandate Covid vaccination for truckers, but it quickly grew into something larger and more amorphous. Some of the protesters called for an end to all pandemic public health measures; others wanted to overthrow the government.
Online, far-right figures latched onto the movement. Protest leaders raised C$24 million through crowdfunding campaigns, including a large portion from American donors.
In Ottawa, businesses shut down amid diesel fumes and incessant honking from the trucks encamped on downtown streets. Elsewhere, protesters blockaded border crossings, including the Ambassador Bridge that connects Windsor, Ont. and Detroit, Mich., and is traversed by roughly 25 percent of the total trade between Canada and the U.S. each year.
The border blockades raised concerns about Canada’s reputation as a reliable trading partner, and Trudeau spoke with President Joe Biden about the situation on Feb. 11. Three days later, with the Ottawa protests entering their third week, Trudeau employed the Emergencies Act.
The act, passed in 1988, had never been used and is intended only for national emergencies that can’t be resolved by other means. Its predecessor, the War Measures Act, was most recently used by Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in response to a series of terrorist attacks by a militant Quebec independence movement in 1970.
In February, the opposition Conservatives called the Emergencies Act an “unprecedented sledgehammer” that was unnecessary to end the protests. Civil liberties groups also claim the Liberals overstepped.
Protesters show their support for the Freedom Convoy truck drivers who are protesting against Covid-19 vaccine mandates by the Canadian government.
The public inquiry to scrutinize the government’s decision was triggered by use of the act, but it’s unclear what consequences Trudeau will face if the commission finds he didn’t meet the requirements for its invocation. The inquiry is a fact-finding mission rather than a legal trial.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the left-leaning New Democrats that currently prop up the minority Liberal government, has suggested he won’t withdraw his support based on the commission’s findings, due in February.
One recent poll found a majority of Canadians are paying at least some attention to the hearings. But it also found most people’s minds were already made up about the Emergencies Act, and a majority believe the government “made the best choice it could” in deciding to use it.
Still, it could be politically damaging for Trudeau to have used extraordinary powers that a public inquiry finds were not warranted. Several of his ministers will testify before the commission this week, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, as will senior aides who rarely speak publicly, including chief of staff Katie Telford.
The hearings could reveal more about communication during the protests between the highest levels of the Canadian and U.S. governments. Trudeau will be the inquiry’s final witness, and will presumably testify Friday.
The witnesses will likely face questions about an assessment prepared by Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which found there was no threat to the security of Canada according to the agency’s definition. That definition includes espionage, plans to overthrow the government and threats or acts of serious violence to achieve political, religious or ideological ends.
The assessment also warned the Emergencies Act might inflame extremism. The agency’s position, which CSIS director David Vigneault discussed with members of Cabinet the day before the act was invoked, was revealed publicly during last week’s hearings. Vigneault will testify Monday.
The revelation is especially important because the Emergencies Act refers specifically to the CSIS definition of security threats.
Doubts about the use of emergency powers have come from other quarters as well. The Ottawa Police Service and the Ontario Provincial Police have both said they didn’t need the act to get the protests under control.
Truckers refuel their trucks in the cold during the “Freedom Convoy” truck protest on Feb. 5, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada.
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images
And the commissioner of Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, advised the public safety minister’s office on the eve of the act’s invocation that police had “not yet exhausted all available tools,” though other witnesses have said it was not clear whether police had a concrete plan to end the protests.
Last week, the deputy minister of Public Safety told the inquiry that he, too, “saw pros and cons” to invoking the Emergencies Act, and was worried about it backfiring. But he also testified that he “underestimated” the act’s impact and that ultimately, “the measures that it contained had a material benefit” in getting the protesters to disperse quickly, especially in Ottawa.
A major police operation ended the Ottawa protest over the weekend of Feb. 19. Using the new emergency powers to prohibit public assemblies, police forces from across the country restricted access to downtown Ottawa and gradually corralled and dispersed the protesters, making roughly 200 arrests and towing dozens of vehicles. About 280 bank accounts were frozen using the Emergencies Act. The border blockades were ended without use of the federal emergency powers, the inquiry has …