OTTAWA – Staff in the prime minister’s office suggest former Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen privately acknowledged concerns about engaging with “Freedom Convoy” protesters last winter while publicly urging the prime minister to listen to them – something Bergen denies.
A summary of interviews with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s senior aides was released Thursday by the public inquiry looking into the federal government’s decision to invoke emergency legislation on Feb. 14.
The document said Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, asked if Bergen could help, and the two leaders discussed reaching out to protesters in a Feb. 3 phone call.
“Ms. Telford added that Ms. Bergen acknowledged during the call that there were significant concerns about who the federal government might engage with and set a bad precedent,” the summary said.
The conversation took place on Bergen’s first day on the job, when she publicly challenged the Trudeau government in the House of Commons for not offering an “olive branch” to the protesters.
During question period, she charged that the prime minister needed to come up with a plan to make protesters “feel like they’ve been listened to.” Instead, she told MPs that Trudeau was “threatening Canadians with more vaccine mandates.”
Bergen said Thursday that she had a different recollection of the Feb. 3 call with Trudeau. She said the Prime Minister called to congratulate her on becoming leader and they discussed a number of things.
“I asked him if he would consider reaching out and extending an olive branch to the people who had come to Ottawa,” Bergen wrote in an email. “He said he didn’t want to set a precedent by speaking to protesters that way.”
During the protests, as the party debated how to respond to the protest, Bergen told some senior conservatives in an email: “I don’t think we should ask them to go home.” She added: “I understand that the mood could change soon. So we have to turn this into (the Prime Minister’s) issue. What will he take (as) the first step to work towards ending this?” A screenshot of the email, which has the subject line “Statement for Feedback,” was obtained by The Canadian Press during the protests and first reported by the Globe and Mail. The Canadian press has not seen the rest of the email chain.
Telford told the commission Thursday that federal officials considered possible engagement with the protesters more than once as a possible option to end the blockade, but ultimately that option had little support across government.
“There were too many unanswered questions,” she said.
“There was no clarity as to who the discussion would be on either side of the discussion and what the discussion would be about and what it might result in.”
Trudeau’s senior staff appeared on the penultimate day of public hearings held by the commission, which is investigating the federal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act in response to protests that hit downtown Ottawa and blocked the Canada-US border.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 24, 2022.