Emergencies Act crackdown on ‘Freedom Convoy’ was justified: inquiry

A public inquiry has determined that the federal government was justified in using the Emergencies Act to crack down on ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests – but was still critical of steps such as a decision to suspend vehicle insurance in these efforts.

The findings come in a 2,000-page report from the Public Order Emergency Commission, which heard 300 hours of testimony and received more than 9,000 documents concerning the protests that spread from Ottawa to international border crossings in early 2022.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and her cabinet colleagues had testified that the protests at the border with the U.S., particularly the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., threatened Canada’s economy and its international reputation as a reliable trading partner.

Convoy flags
Flags were flying along overpasses and roadways, as the convoy made its way through Ontario (File photo: John G. Smith)

But commissioner Paul Rouleau said the Emergencies Act does not, and was not intended to, capture economic crises. He acknowledged that cabinet should consider the impacts of economic disruptions that threaten the lives, health and safety of Canadians, and take that into account when deciding whether there is a national emergency at play. 

“Financial costs and trade impacts are not sufficient in themselves, and I have not considered them to be so. What is relevant, however, is the human health and public safety consequences that may flow from a serious, sudden, prolonged, and deliberate disruption to economic security and the ability to earn a living,” he said.

Transport Canada estimated economic losses of close to $45 million a day against a backdrop of automotive sector shutdowns because of supply chain disruptions.

Protecting border crossings

One challenge that Rouleau cited included the fact that the federal government only has jurisdiction over a small piece of land that includes border crossing buildings and vehicle marshalling areas. But protests such as those in Windsor and Coutts, Alta., showed that blockades could be set up at any point along the provincial or municipal roads leading up to a port of entry.

“If the municipal or provincial policing resources are not effective in keeping the POE open, the federal government might consider it necessary to take extraordinary action, including possibly resorting to the Emergencies Act,” Rouleau said.

It would be “preferable” if the federal government collaborated will all levels of government to “assign responsibilities and develop protocols across all relevant levels of government to keep trade transportation corridors and infrastructure clear without resorting to emergency legislation,” he said.

Public Safety Canada is currently working with provinces and territories on a National Strategy for Critical Infrastructure and its association action plans.

Truck driver vaccine mandate a ‘rallying point’

Rules that limited the ability of unvaccinated truck drivers to cross the Canada-U.S. border served as a “rallying point” for protesters who disagreed with government Covid-19 policies, Rouleau said. “These individuals organized, mobilized and became what would come to be known as the Freedom Convoy movement.”

The results were “beyond anything that the organizers could have imagined,” he concluded in the report.

“Convoys measuring kilometers in length moved toward Ottawa. Thousands of supporters cheered them on by the roadside. Millions of dollars were donated to support their cause. Upon arrival in Ottawa, the convoys paralyzed the downtown core. Roads were filled with trucks, parks became encampments, and sidewalks teemed with protesters.”

Border blockades – particularly those at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., and the crossing at Coutts, Alta. — introduced disruptions of their own.

While the Ambassador Bridge blockade was not the first one to be inspired by Ottawa protests, it was the most significant because of the span’s role in Canada’s economy, he said. “The blockade would become a major preoccupation of the federal government in the days leading up to the invocation of the Emergencies Act, as well as the catalyst for the greater involvement by the province of Ontario in responding to the Freedom Convoy movement.”

Suspended insurance was dangerous

In his report, Rouleau said most of the emergency measures taken under the Act were appropriate and reasonable, while describing others, such as the power to suspend vehicle insurance, as counterproductive.

That measure in particular could have been dangerous, the commissioner said. The report said that measure was viewed as so problematic that the RCMP decided not to provide a list of “designated persons” taking part in the protests to insurance companies. 

Overall, Rouleau made 56 recommendations, with 27 directed at how to improve police operations, as well as several aimed at the future use of the Act itself. 

Over five volumes of documents, he described in painstaking detail the genesis of the protests, the response by police and different levels of government, as well as the actions of the protesters and the role social media and false information played in fueling the demonstrations.  

“Having reviewed that evidence carefully, it is apparent that there were signals missed, opportunities lost, and delays created that resulted in a situation in the nation’s capital that was far more serious and complex than it might have otherwise been,” he said. 

Not lawful and peaceful

Rouleau said he does not accept assertions from different convoy organizers that the protest in Ottawa was lawful and peaceful. He noted that while some protesters had a positive experience “such as honking, drinking and dancing in the streets,” residents of Ottawa experienced these as “harassing and intimidating.” 

“The bigger picture reveals that the situation in Ottawa was unsafe and chaotic,” he said. 

Rouleau said Covid-19 restrictions ushered in to stem the spread of the virus “had a profound impact on many Canadians,” and that the image of the trucker proved to be a “powerful symbol”.

The report described the leadership of the convoy movement as “fractured and divided,” saying nearly all the organizers testified about “various levels of dysfunction and power struggles.”

Rouleau said he did not believe Ottawa protest organizers did all they could to stop the harassment and other negative behavior residents in the city were experiencing. 

“While it is important to recognize the presence of controversial and extreme elements at the protests, it should not detract from my findings that many and perhaps most of the protesters sought to engage in legitimate and lawful protests,” Rouleau said. 

“Their participation alone does not mean that they supported or condoned the conduct of extreme or fringe participants.” 

  • With files from the Canadian Press

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