Trudeau feared “the worst” if the Emergency Act was not invoked

Written by

OTTAWA –

In a candid exchange at the federal inquiry into the invocation of the emergency law, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on the stand that a key factor in his decision to introduce unprecedented powers to shut down the “Freedom Convoy” protests, was his fear of what might happen if he didn’t.

After reviewing how he weighed all the advice he received to invoke the law — from the head of CSIS, his national security adviser, top government officials and his cabinet — he said he also paused to consider the consequence if he said, “Let’s give it a few days.”

“First of all, what if the worst had happened in the following days? What if someone had been hurt? What if a police officer had been hospitalized? What if, when I had the opportunity to do something, I had waited and the unthinkable happened… I would have carried it in a way that we would certainly talk about in a forum like this,” Trudeau told the Public Order Emergency Commission on Friday.

The prime minister is the latest witness to testify as part of the weeks-long public consultation process triggered by his decision on Feb. 14 to invoke never-before-used federal powers over fears for Canada’s economic and national security. In doing so, the federal government launched a comprehensive series of measures to support the provinces, municipalities and police forces in ending the demonstrations.

“More than that, it’s a prime minister’s responsibility to make the tough calls and keep people safe. And this was a moment where the collective advice of the government, the public service and my own inclination was that this was a moment to do something… to keep Canadians safe. And knowing full well that this was an inevitable consequence of me signing “I agree” on this note, I was very comfortable that we were at a point where it was the right thing to do and we did it,” Trudeau said.

This moment in his testimony came just before the morning break, and right after Trudeau painted a vivid picture of his consultations and conversations with the premier, senior government officials, members of his Liberal caucus and opposition party leaders in the hours leading up to his decision.

He revealed to the commission that the night before there was consensus around the federal “incident group” table to invoke the law, and that while it was helpful, he wasn’t necessarily looking for unanimity.

Trudeau also told the commission that he ultimately did not make up his mind until about 3.40pm on 14 February when he received a “summons memo” from the Clerk of the Privy Council telling him the threshold had been reached. Until then, he said, it was still possible that he would not be here to testify today, since the commission is a product of his invocation.

“It was a big thing, not a small thing, to have the head of the public service formally recommend the invocation of the Emergencies Act and the declaration of a public policy emergency. It is not something that had ever been done in Canada before,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister was also asked about some previous testimony indicating that officials were concerned that subpoenas could make things worse or inflame tensions, and that in the eyes of CSIS there was no threat to Canada’s security under the CSIS Act.

Trudeau began his own explanation, which others have endeavored to explain, that in his view the threshold for the Governor in Council to find reasonable grounds for threats to the security of Canada under the Emergencies Act was “very different” from the needs of CSIS to meet a “deliberately narrow” threshold to initiate an investigation, as the definition was originally intended in the Act drafted just a few years before the Emergency Act.

“It’s not the words that are different. The words are exactly the same in both cases, the question is who is doing the interpretation? What input is coming in? And what is the purpose of that?” Trudeau said.

Earlier in his testimony, Trudeau said it was clear even before it began that the upcoming trucker convoy would be “a different brand” of demonstration, and as it progressed, pressure mounted for him to step in.

The prime minister also confirmed to the commission, something that has recently been cemented through ministerial testimony, that “as an idea” the emergency law was discussed very early in the protests. Trudeau said it was a “back of our mind” option — given considerations about whether the public welfare emergency option was needed during the worst of COVID-19 — as they watched the situation in Ottawa and at key border crossings worsen.

Testifying to international pressure on Canada as border blockades began to snarl trade between Canada and the United States, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked by commission counsel Shantona Chaudhury if he thought US President Joe Biden was as concerned about the impact of the protests as he was . Trudeau said “no”.

“I think he was very concerned, but I don’t think anyone was more concerned than me,” Trudeau told the commission.

‘ANOTHER BRAND OF EVENT’

Trudeau began his appearance before the commission, going through the chronology of the protests, testifying that while preparations were being made, there was “already a little bit of concern that this might be a different brand of event than Canadians are used to seeing.”

The prime minister testified that he thought the anger among people planning to protest reminded him of the anger seen during the 2021 federal election campaign. After the protesters poured into the nation’s capital, it wasn’t long before he heard directly from local MPs and the then mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, to get the federal government to intervene because the police’s ability to hold it during the end of the first weekend. control “wasn’t exactly there.”

“I dare say that citizens of Ottawa are used to political activity and protests on the Hill about a number of things. But this was present in their daily lives and disrupted their weekend in a way that was not a usual political protest,” Trudeau said. “From the intimidation and harassment of people for wearing masks, to a very worrying story of people disrupting the nearby homeless shelter and soup kitchen, there were signs that there was a degree of disregard for others that we had sadly seen examples of during the election campaign.

DEMAND TO CHANGE POLICY ‘WORRYING’

As the protests continued, Trudeau faced calls from the official opposition and others to meet with or otherwise hear from the protesters in some way, and the commission has heard a lot about the various proposals and considerations for how that might happen.

Trudeau told the commission on Friday that while there was a willingness to talk, some of the “Freedom Convoy” leaders’ demands were non-starters, including overturning the 2021 election results or revoking federal health mandates. Also, Trudeau said he was concerned about setting a precedent or legitimizing the demands.

“I’m concerned about setting a precedent that a blockade of Wellington Street could lead to changing public policy,” Trudeau said. “We have a robust functioning democracy and protests, public protests, are an important part of making sure Canadians get messages out there and highlight how they feel about different issues. But using protests to demand changes in public policy is something I think is troubling.”

Trudeau thought more about this broad answer and tried to clarify:

“There’s a difference between occupations and, you know, saying, ‘We’re not leaving until this has changed’ in a way that’s massively disruptive and potentially dangerous.”

TRUDEAU OFFER WITH GG, ‘CRAZY’ MOU

Recalling a phone call he had with Governor General Mary Simon on the first Saturday of the protests, Trudeau told the Commission they discussed Canada Unity’s disputed and ultimately abandoned “memorandum of understanding” (MOU). This was the document that suggested protesters could get the Senate and Governor General Mary Simon to join them in forming a committee to order the revocation of COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates.

As the commission has already heard, the core convoy organizers tried to distance themselves from the proposal – which was later transformed into a proposal for protesters to form a coalition with opposition parties and the involvement of Simon to oust the government.

Trudeau said the MOU showed a lack of understanding of how Canada’s democracy and institutions actually work, and that he spoke to Simon about having to let the “crazy things” that were being proposed and the hate mail coming in as a result, “slip off our back.”

PM THINKS FORD TRIED TO MAKE HIM WEAR IT

On Friday, Trudeau was also asked about what the commission has heard was significant federal frustration over what appeared to be the Ontario government’s reluctance to engage.

In his own words, Trudeau believed that Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, was “hiding from his responsibility on that for political reasons.”

Trudeau told the commission, in his opinion, the Ontario government was happy to allow public perception that the convoy was a problem for the city of Ottawa and the federal government, but not the responsibility of the province.

“It was an unpleasant situation, there were bad headlines … I can understand that provincial politicians who were overlooked in the complaints that everyone had about why this was not resolved would say ‘You know what, let’s not stick our noses into this And people will continue to criticize the people who are helping,” Trudeau said.

He added that while he believes there was provincial police involvement, “at the political level, there was probably a decision to continue to hold back a little bit and let us carry it a little bit.”

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Over the past six weeks, the commission has investigated what led to the call, learned about the impact on Ottawa residents and city council, the dysfunction in the Ottawa Police Service and the chain of command and information-sharing struggles between the OPP and RCMP.

The hearings also painted clear pictures of the frustration that came from the Ontario government’s apparent lack of involvement, the power struggles of convoy organizers and the grassroots origins of social media, and the prioritization of the border blockades for economic and diplomatic reasons.

Over the past and past two weeks, Commissioner Paul Rouleau has heard about the incredible amount of federal bureaucracy involved, different interpretations of what the Emergency Act, as it was drafted decades ago, dictates when they declare an emergency in the public order and what role prime ministers had in proposing solutions.

However, one limitation of the findings has been the federal government’s refusal to waive solicitor-client privilege as it relates to the legal advice Cabinet received on whether the protests met the CSIS Act threshold of a “threat to the security of Canada,” combined with a gradual release of sometimes heavily redacted government documents.

Exercising the extraordinary powers after high-level consultation with the premier and opposition leaders, the federal government launched a comprehensive series of measures to support the provinces, municipalities and police forces facing the continuing demonstrations. The action was then lifted on 23 February.

This entire commission process was triggered by Trudeau’s invocation of the law when the decision to declare a national public policy emergency introduced an entire accountability process, requiring Trudeau to attack this commission, which must present its report to Parliament by February. 20.

About the author

Leave a Comment