A federal commission is to report today on the Liberal government’s use of the Emergencies Act against protests that paralyzed the streets around Parliament Hill and jammed several Canadian border points early last year.
Justice Paul Rouleau’s report will address whether the government’s emergency declaration was justified and make recommendations likely to spark lively debate about how to update the legislation.
The Public Order Emergency Commission report, to be tabled in Parliament, draws on about 300 hours of testimony and some 9,000 documents entered into evidence over seven weeks.
The inquiry heard from more than 100 witnesses, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several other cabinet members, senior bureaucrats, protest participants, police, and City of Ottawa officials.
Rouleau’s keenly anticipated findings are the culmination of a mandatory review that takes place after invocation of the Emergencies Act, which replaced the War Measures Act in 1988.
Trudeau waits to review
Trudeau told reporters Thursday evening that he doesn’t expect the findings to change his government’s credibility with the public.
“For a lot of Canadians, the credibility of government, the credibility of institutions, relied on us being able to assure the free flow of goods across our borders, the ability for citizens to go home or go to work unimpeded by illegal protests and occupations,” he said in the Bahamas.
Trudeau commended Rouleau and his staff for working “extremely rapidly” on the report.
“To highlight the tightness of the timelines, I look forward to reviewing the commission’s report … and speaking about it with Canadians.”
One year ago, downtown Ottawa was filled with protesters, many in large trucks that rolled into town beginning in late January. Ostensibly a demonstration against COVID-19 health restrictions, the gathering attracted people with a variety of grievances against Trudeau and his government.
The usually sedate streets around Parliament were transformed by blaring rig horns, diesel fumes, makeshift encampments, and even a hot tub and bouncy castle as people settled in.
The influx, including some participants with roots in the far-right movement, prompted many businesses to shut their doors and aggravated residents with noise, pollution and harassing behaviour.
Ottawa police enforcement
Public frustration simmered over a lack of enforcement action by Ottawa police.
Meanwhile, trucks clogged key border crossings, including key routes to the United States at Windsor, Ont., and Coutts, Alta.
On Feb. 14, the Trudeau government invoked the Emergencies Act, which allowed for temporary measures including regulation and prohibition of public assemblies, the designation of secure places, direction to banks to freeze assets and a ban on support for participants.
It was the first time the law had been employed.
In a letter to premiers the next day, Trudeau said the federal government believed it had reached a point “where there is a national emergency arising from threats to Canada’s security.”
“We are facing significant economic disruptions, with the breakdown of supply chains,” he wrote.
“This is costing Canadians their jobs and undermining our economic and national security, with potentially significant impacts on the health and safety of Canadians. It is affecting Canada’s reputation internationally, hurting trade and commerce, and undermining confidence and trust in our institutions.”
Arrests and charges
In the ensuing days, authorities towed away trucks, arrested more than 200 people — including key organizers in Ottawa — and laid hundreds of charges.
The emergency declaration was lifted on Feb. 23.
But was the act needed — or even used — to disperse protesters and free up border points?
The legislation says a public order emergency entails a “serious threat to the security of Canada, as defined by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.”
The definition includes espionage or sabotage of Canada’s interests, foreign-influenced activities, or the violent overthrow of the government.
The commission heard that CSIS did not believe the protests met the threshold of being a threat to Canada’s security — at least in the context of its own governing legislation.
Challenging the law
However, two former CSIS directors testified that the government should redefine national security threats in the Emergencies Act, possibly expanding the ambit to include threats to the economy and those posed by climate change.
A civil liberties group and others opposed to invocation of the law continue to wage a Federal Court case against its use last year.
In addition to setting out findings and lessons learned, Rouleau was asked to make recommendations on “any necessary modernization” of the emergencies law, as well as on “areas for further study or review.”
The commission report will also include information on:
— the evolution and goals of the convoy and blockades, as well as their leadership and participants;
— the effect of domestic and foreign funding, including crowdsourcing platforms;
— the effect, role and sources of misinformation and disinformation, including use of social media;
— the economic toll of the blockades; and
— the efforts of police and other responders before and after the declaration.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2023.