By Laura Osman and David Fraser in Ottawa
Cabinet ministers did not exhaust every option they had to resolve the protests blockading Ottawa streets and border crossings across the country last winter before turning to the Emergencies Act, a federal inquiry heard Friday.
Thousands of protesters rolled into Ottawa in big rigs and other vehicles to voice their opposition to COVID-19 public health restrictions and the Liberal government.
After the first weekend, it became clear the protesters did not plan to leave downtown Ottawa, where they set up camps in the middle of city streets. That’s when cabinet convened to review what the federal government could do to end the protests, said Jacqueline Bogden, the government’s deputy secretary on emergency preparedness.
“It wasn’t perfect, but it was there to kind of stimulate conversation on the range of options within federal jurisdiction of things that ministers and departments might be able to think about,” Bogden said Friday.
Bodgen testified at a hearing of the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is scrutinizing the events and advice that led to the Liberals’ mid-February decision to invoke the Emergencies Act. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a public order emergency under the legislation on Feb. 14, the first time it was invoked since it replaced the War Measures Act in 1988.
The act is meant to be used when an urgent, critical and temporary situation threatens the lives, health or safety of Canadians, the provinces are thought to lack the capacity or authority to respond and the crisis cannot be handled effectively with existing laws.
Among the options for cabinet ministers was a “national listening exercise,” like the French government undertook during the 2019 yellow vest protests in that country, though the response to those demonstrations also included violent police action.
Stiffer penalties were also considered, such as banning trucks and trucking companies taking part in the “Freedom Convoy” from being awarded government contracts.
When protests had not ended by Feb. 9, the clerk of the Privy Council, Janice Charette, asked deputy ministers to come up with more options.
“We have to leave no stone unturned. We have to make sure that we are looking at every power, duty, every authority we have, every resource we have to make sure we are bringing the full power of the federal government,” Charette said of her orders to deputies during her testimony Friday.
“I would have been saying ‘all hands on deck, no idea too crazy, let’s look at absolutely everything.'”
The Emergencies Act was listed as a potential “plan B” on the final list of options that was considered by cabinet ministers the following day.
Federal officials were thinking about the legislation for years at that point, because there was discussion about the possibility of invoking it due to the COVID-19 pandemic, deputy clerk Nathalie Drouin told the commission Friday.
It wasn’t until Feb. 9 that deputy ministers started considering using it in the context of the protest.
When such a serious option was brought to the table, Charette recommended ministers move the discussions to an incident response group of cabinet ministers with decision-making powers.
Minutes from a Feb. 12 meeting of that group show there were two lists of options consideration: one using the existing authorities, and a second that would involve granting new powers to the government and police.
Charette said not every existing option was exhausted before cabinet decided to move ahead with the Emergencies Act.
“But the question was whether or not (the other options) were going to be adequate to be able to deal with the totality of this situation. That, I think, was the matter before ministers,” she said.
The memo of approval signed by the prime minister to invoke the Emergencies Act, prepared by Charette, cautioned that while the Privy Council’s office felt the circumstances of the protests met the threshold to invoke the law, that view was “vulnerable to challenge” because the law had not been tested.
The legislation relies on a definition of threats to the security of Canada as found the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, which includes espionage or sabotage, foreign influence, the threat of serious violence, or the violent overthrow of government.
The inquiry has heard that CSIS director David Vigneault advised cabinet there was no such threat to the security of Canada under that definition, but Charette said Friday that wasn’t his call to make: the decision was up to cabinet.
She advised the prime minister the threshold was met because of a culmination of factors, including violent rhetoric, hate speech, death threats to elected officials and the cache of weapons founds at the Coutts, Alta., border blockade.
“This wasn’t a single-headed hydra,” she said, adding the protests were organized, co-ordinated and very well financed.
The memo of approval was supposed to include a threat assessment, but it wasn’t included by the time the prime minister signed the document and doesn’t appear to have materialized since, Charette said.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association issued a statement Friday to express how “profoundly disturbing” it was to learn the government did not abide by the strict definition of an emergency in the legislation.
“National emergencies that authorize extraordinary powers cannot be in the eye of the beholder,” Zara Zwibel, a director with the CCLA, said in a written statement Friday.
The commission will hear from the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and seven federal ministers during its final week of testimony.
The prime minister’s chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and director of policy were recently added to the list of witnesses for next week.
Trudeau is expected to be the commission’s final witness next Friday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.
Military was told to prepare to intervene in ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests: official
OTTAWA — The Defence Department’s top official says he directed the military to prepare to intervene in the “Freedom Convoy” protests earlier this year, but the resulting plans were never seriously considered — in part due to concerns about another Oka Crisis.
Deputy minister Bill Matthews and another top defence official also said the Canadian Armed Forces was prepared to fly police officers to demonstration sites across the country, but that its tow trucks were too big — and too old — to help with the protests.
Matthews and Defence Department associate deputy minister Stefanie Beck made the comments in an August interview with lawyers for the public inquiry looking into the Liberal government’s decision to use the Emergencies Act to end the protests.
A summary of that interview is among thousands of documents released by the Public Order Emergency Commission, which will ultimately determine whether the government was justified in invoking the act in February.
Neither was called to publicly testify before the commission.
The Liberals faced public calls in January and February to deploy the military as thousands of protesters opposed to vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions gridlocked Ottawa and border crossings with the United States for three weeks.
The inquiry was also shown text messages in recent weeks in which federal Justice Minister David Lametti and then-Alberta premier Jason Kenney raised the prospect of using the military alongside police to clear protesters.
In one text exchange, Lametti and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino raised the idea of using a tank to end the protests. Lametti told the commission last week that the exchange was a joke.
Lametti and Defence Minister Anita Anand instead told the commission that the military was always considered a last resort — a position that Matthews and Beck echoed in their interview with commission lawyers.
Both defence officials “strongly emphasized that CAF members are not police officers,” the summary reads.
“They are trained to use lethal force, not do crowd control. Indeed, the domestic use of military force is, and in their view should always be, seen as a last resort.”
Matthews did say he asked defence officials to prepare “for the possibility that the CAF might be called out to intervene in the protests,” with a number of scenarios and internal plans subsequently drawn up.
“These plans considered the use of military equipment, infrastructure and deployment of CAF members.”
Yet Matthews and Beck said it was clear throughout the planning process that the government and the minister did not want to use the military due to fears “deploying the military in any way would inflame tensions with the protesters.”
The two officials “noted that the shadow of the Oka Crisis still looms large,” reads the summary.
On July 11, 1990, Quebec provincial police moved in on a barricade near the small town, which is about 50 kilometres northwest of Montreal. The barricade was erected by Indigenous activists to protest the planned expansion of a golf course and development on ancestral land.
After a police officer was killed, the situation escalated into a tense, 78-day standoff between Mohawk and thousands of Canadian soldiers that captured the country’s attention and raised enduring concerns about using the military in protests.
Matthews and Beck told the commission lawyers that they shared their concerns about a possible repeat of the crisis with senior officials in other departments, but that the military’s actual plans were not shared with them or with Anand.
“It was a necessary planning exercise, but the option of deploying the CAF was never seriously considered.”
The military did end up providing limited support to law enforcement efforts, with Ottawa police using the Cartier Drill Hall in downtown Ottawa as a staging area. It also provided 1,200 ration packs to the Parliamentary Protective Service.
The Defence Department and Armed Forces expected and considered requests for military planes to fly police to various parts of the country, but Matthews and Beck said domestic flights ended up being adequate.
Officials also considered whether the military could be used to clear protesters’ trucks from downtown Ottawa, the border crossing in Coutts, Alta., and other places where local officials were having trouble getting local tow companies to help.
However, Matthews and Beck said that ultimately wasn’t an option as the military’s own tow trucks weren’t designed for the types of vehicles involved in the protests, and using them would damage not only those vehicles but also any roads driven upon.
There were also concerns that moving the military’s tow trucks would represent a “significant logistical effort” and could have “drawn significant attention to themselves and the CAF members operating them.”
“Third, the trucks are quite old and require frequent maintenance,” the interview summary adds. “DND has plans to replace these trucks.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
Government to un-redact text messages, notes of PMO staff at Emergencies Act inquiry
OTTAWA — Lawyers for “Freedom Convoy” organizers have won their bid to get access to unredacted versions of 20 documents at the Public Order Emergency Act.
Lawyer Brendan Miller applied to have the public inquiry release information in government documents that it had blacked-out, arguing the information should not be protected by parliamentary privilege.
Commissioner Paul Rouleau says the Government of Canada has agreed to release the unredacted documents voluntarily.
The documents include written notes and text message exchanges that belong to the prime minister’s staff.
Today marks the final day of seven weeks of commission fact-finding and policy hearings, and the commissioner and his team have until early February to produce their final report.
That means any new information is unlikely to be put to witnesses, but can be considered by the commissioner and included in written arguments by the various groups that took part in the commission.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2022.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press
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