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CSIS director supported invoking Emergencies Act, inquiry hears

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By Laura Osman, Stephanie Taylor and David Fraser in Ottawa

The head of Canada’s intelligence service told the prime minister he supported the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act last winter, despite his opinion that protest blockades across the country did not meet the service’s strict definition of a threat to Canadian security, a public inquiry heard Monday.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault’s testimony is key to the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is scrutinizing the government’s emergency declaration and its invocation of special powers to disperse the protests.

The commission also heard from its first cabinet minister on Monday, with Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair taking the stand and saying the Emergencies Act had been used as a last resort.

The act identifies a public order emergency as a threat to Canada’s security, as defined in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.

That definition includes espionage or sabotage of Canada’s interests, foreign influence, acts of serious violence against people or property with political, religious or ideological objectives, or the violent overthrow of the Canadian government.

No such threat materialized during the “Freedom Convoy” protests, Vigneault said, though CSIS was investigating some participants in relation to violent extremism.

Still, Vigneault said he was satisfied that a threat to national security had to be interpreted differently in the context of the Emergencies Act after he received advice from the Department of Justice. That advice will not be shared with the public because the government has not waived solicitor-client privilege when it comes to the invocation of the act.

“This I think is the crux of the issue,” Vigneault said during the hearing Monday. “In the context of the Emergencies Act there was to be separate interpretation, based on the confines of that act.”

The clerk of the Privy Council testified last week that the government took a wider interpretation, including threats to Canada’s economic security.

Provincial premiers were likely not informed the threat did not meet the strict threshold defined in the CSIS Act when they were consulted about the potential emergency declaration, Vigneault said, because provinces don’t have access to classified CSIS information.

Protesters with hundreds of large trucks and other vehicles arrived in Ottawa at the end of January, blocking city streets in what began as a demonstration against a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for cross-border truck drivers.

The protest quickly expanded to include dissent against all COVID-19 public health restrictions and the Liberal government generally, continuing for nearly a month.

Similar protests developed in cities across the country, and demonstrators blockaded several busy international border crossings.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a public order emergency on Feb. 14 — the first time the legislation was used since its 1988 inception. He and seven cabinet ministers are scheduled to testify at the inquiry this week, with Trudeau’s appearance expected to come last.

Blair, whose portfolio is explicitly focused on emergencies, took the stand Monday afternoon. Convoy organizer Tamara Lich was among a small group of spectators watching his testimony in person.

He said that he believed the Emergencies Act was used as a measure of last resort, telling the commission: “I came to believe we needed to find a remedy.”

Blair said he was concerned about the security and integrity of Canada’s borders and of its critical infrastructure. “You don’t have to blow everything up to render it unusable,” he testified. “Rendering it unusable is an attack on critical infrastructure.”

Brendan Miller, a lawyer for Lich and other convoy organizers, accused Blair of having planned to use the Emergencies Act early on, a week into the protest.

Miller based the accusation on meeting notes taken by a scribe in the office of the prime minister’s chief of staff. The notes shown to the commission contain only the words “Emergencies Act”under the heading: “Blair’s current strategy.”

Blair said that the notes are from a meeting in which he told colleagues that it would not be appropriate to use the legislation at that time.

Vigneault said he was asked for his opinion before the Emergencies Act was invoked, and told the prime minister he believed it was “required” based on what was happening across the country.

“All of these elements of unpredictability, based on my experience having been around national security issues for quite a few years now, led me to believe that the regular tools were just not enough to address the situation,” he said.

The Emergencies Act granted extraordinary powers to governments, banks and police to create no-go zones around critical infrastructure, compel the co-operation of tow-truck companies and freeze the bank accounts of people suspected of being involved in the protest.

Vigneault testified on a public panel Monday morning with the CSIS deputy director of operations and the executive director of the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, a unit housed at the intelligence service.

The inquiry commissioner, Justice Paul Rouleau, has allowed CSIS to share some testimony and evidence privately with the inquiry because details could jeopardize the agency’s intelligence operations and national security.

Questions about investigative techniques, CSIS informants and any details about CSIS investigations were off-limits during the public hearing, but might have been asked during a closed-door hearing earlier this month.

CSIS produced five threat assessments of the convoy protest in Ottawa and similar protests that blocked border crossings, but the details of those assessments have been shared privately with the commission and will not be released publicly.

The intelligence service wasn’t specifically investigating the growing movement of Canadians opposed to public health measures, CSIS deputy director of operations Michelle Tessier testified Monday. Rather, it was concerned about people with more extreme views using the protest as an opportunity.

“It would be more the individuals who exploit that type of a movement to recruit individuals, to bring them more toward the extreme view of anti-authority ideology, wanting to use serious violence to kill to bring changes,” Tessier said.

The agency has seen an increase in “anti-authority” rhetoric, even after concerns about public health restrictions dwindled as the measures were lifted, she said. Threats against elected politicians are also on the rise.

There were early indications that ideologically motivated extremists planned to attend the protest, says Jan. 27 briefing material prepared by CSIS.

The notes, which Vigneault indicated were used to brief Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, also make clear the agency was unaware of “any tangible plots or plans of serious violence.”

The overall threat level in Canada remained “medium” throughout the protests, CSIS reported to the commission.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2022.

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Alberta

Two deputy chief medical officers resign from their positions with Alberta Health

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Edmonton – Alberta’s two deputy chief medical officers of health are leaving their roles — less than a month after Dr. Deena Hinshaw was removed as the province’s top doctor.

Health Minister Jason Copping confirmed during question period Wednesday that both of the doctors have submitted letters of resignation.

“They are still continuing to work at this point in time,” he said in the legislature. “We are in the process of actually looking to fill those roles.”

A statement from Alberta Health said Dr. Rosana Salvaterra and Dr. Jing Hu, who are listed as public health physicians on the department’s website, have given notice.

When reached by her department email, Salvaterra responded: “Unfortunately, we are not able to comment.”

She later added that she respects and admires both Dr. Hinshaw and Dr. Hu.

“They are brilliant, hard-working, and compassionate public health physicians and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside them for these past 14 months.”

Salvaterra, who has extensive public health experience including as the medical officer of health for Peterborough, Ont., joined the office in October 2021.

Her career in public health includes work in “the COVID-19 response, mental health, the opioid response, women’s health, poverty reduction, health equity, community food security and building stronger relationships with First Nations.”

Hu’s out-of-office message said her “last day at work with Alberta Health was Nov. 18, 2022,” and noted she wouldn’t have access to the department email after that date.

She got extensive training in China and at the University of Calgary before joining the health department in January 2020.

Their resignations came within a month of Hinshaw, who became the face of Alberta’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, being removed from her position.

Hinshaw was replaced by Dr. Mark Joffe, a senior executive member of Alberta Health Services, on an interim basis.

“Dr. Joffe will be supported by medical officers of health within AHS, by other staff in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and by the Public Health Division,” said the statement from Alberta Health late Wednesday.

“We expect these changes to have no impact on the department’s and Dr. Joffe’s ability to meet the requirements of the Public Health Act.”

Hinshaw’s dismissal didn’t come as a surprise.

Premier Danielle Smith announced on her first day in office in October that she would be replaced.

Smith has made it clear that she blames both Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services for failing to deliver the best advice and care for Albertans as the hospital system came close to buckling in successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of the bad decisions were made by Alberta Health Services on the basis of bad advice from the chief medical officer of health,” Smith told reporters on Oct. 22.

Smith has not placed the blame on front-line doctors and nurses but broadly on AHS senior management. Joffe, while serving as chief medical officer of health, retains his role in AHS senior management as a vice-president responsible for areas in cancer and clinical care.

Hinshaw, an Alberta-trained public health specialist, became a celebrity of sorts in the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, as she delivered regular, sometimes daily, updates to Albertans on the virus, its spread and methods to contain it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

— By Colette Derworiz in Calgary.

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COVID-19

China eases anti-COVID measures following protests

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By Joe Mcdonald in Beijing

BEIJING (AP) — China rolled back rules on isolating people with COVID-19 and dropped virus test requirements for some public places Wednesday in a dramatic change to a strategy that confined millions of people to their homes and sparked protests and demands for President Xi Jinping to resign.

The move adds to earlier easing that fueled hopes Beijing was scrapping its “zero COVID” strategy, which is disrupting manufacturing and global trade. Experts warn, however, that restrictions can’t be lifted completely until at least mid-2023 because millions of elderly people still must be vaccinated and the health care system strengthened.

China is the last major country still trying to stamp out transmission of the virus while many nations switch to trying to live with it. As they lift restrictions, Chinese officials have also shifted to talking about the virus as less threatening — a possible effort to prepare people for a similar switch.

People with mild cases will be allowed for the first time to isolate at home, the National Health Commission announced, instead of going to sometimes overcrowded or unsanitary quarantine centers. That addresses a major irritation that helped to drive protests that erupted Nov. 25 in Shanghai and other cities.

Public facilities except for “special places,” such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes, will no longer require visitors to produce a “health code” on a smartphone app that tracks their virus tests and whether they have been to areas deemed at high risk of infection.

Local officials must “take strict and detailed measures to protect people’s life, safety and health” but at the same time “minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” the statement said.

China’s restrictions have helped to keep case numbers low, but that means few people have developed natural immunity, a factor that might set back reopening plans if cases surge and authorities feel compelled to reimpose restrictions.

Still, after three years spent warning the public about COVID-19’s dangers, Chinese officials have begun to paint it as less threatening.

People with mild cases “can recover by themselves without special medical care,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the China Centers for Disease Control, on his social media account.

“The good news is that the data show the proportion of severe cases is low,” said Wu.

The latest changes are “small steps” in a gradual process aimed at ending restrictions, said Liang Wannian, a member of an expert group advising the National Health Commission, at a news conference.

The government’s goal is “to return to the state before the epidemic, but the realization of the goal must have conditions,” said Liang, one of China’s most prominent anti-epidemic experts.

Dr. Yanzhong Huang, an expert on public health in China, also emphasized the gradual nature of the announcement.

The new measures are a shift away from “zero COVID” — but “not a roadmap to reopening,” said Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University.

“When implemented, these measures may generate dynamics that fuel the rapid spread of the virus even though China is not ready for such a dramatic shift,” he said.

The government announced a campaign last week to vaccinate the elderly that health experts say must be done before China can end restrictions on visitors coming from abroad. They say the ruling Communist Party also needs to build up China’s hospital system to cope with a possible rise in cases.

But public frustration is rising now, as millions of people are repeatedly confined at home for uncertain periods, schools close abruptly and economic growth falls.

The changes have been rolled out despite a renewed spike in infections started in October. On Wednesday, the government reported 25,231 new cases, including 20,912 without symptoms.

Xi’s government has held up “zero COVID” as proof of the superiority of China’s system compared with the United States and Western countries. China’s official death toll is 5,235 since the start of the pandemic versus a U.S. count of 1.1 million.

Rules were left in place that warn apartment and office buildings might be sealed if infections are found. Complaints that families are confined for weeks at a time with uncertain access to food and medicine were a key driver of the protests.

The ruling party switched early this year to suspending access to neighborhoods or districts where infections were discovered instead of isolating whole cities.

On Wednesday, the government said the scope of closures will be narrowed still further to single apartment floors or buildings instead of neighborhoods.

It said schools in communities with no outbreaks must return to in-person teaching.

That appeared to be a response to complaints that local leaders, threatened with the loss of their jobs in the event of outbreaks, impose closures that are destructive, might be unnecessary and exceed what the central government allows.

The demonstrations in at least eight major cities and on dozens of university campuses were the most widespread display of public dissent in decades. In Shanghai, some protesters shouted the politically explosive demand for Xi, China’s most influential figure in decades, to resign.

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