As the official inquiry into the government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act earlier this year prepares to enter its public phase, the prime minister is standing firm behind his decision to use the controversial legislation — even as civil liberties groups raise questions.
The Public Order Emergency Commission’s public hearings will kick off on Thursday, at which point Canadians will be able to hear from a number of different high-profile voices about whether the invocation was a justifiable response to the convoy protest that blockaded downtown Ottawa and two border crossings for weeks.
Speaking in a press conference on Wednesday, Trudeau said that the government moved forward with the measures — which he said “are not to be taken lightly” — in a “time-limited, measured way, to be able to get the situation back under control.”
“But part of that process is to ensure there is proper accountability and proper oversight after the fact and that’s why there is a public inquiry into the use of the (Emergencies) Act, so that Canadians can understand what and how these powers were used,” Trudeau said.
“That’s why, from the very beginning, I offered to the commission to appear at that commission so that Canadians could understand exactly why we had to do what we did.”
Meanwhile, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) — which has already taken the government to court over its use of the Emergencies Act — is promising to “vigorously test” the Liberals’ justification for using the controversial legislation.
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Speaking in a separate press conference on Tuesday, Cara Zwibel, director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the CCLA, said it is her organization’s opinion that the use of the emergency legislation was “unlawful and unconstitutional.”
“We are going into the commission with an open mind, but in our view, the government has yet to prove that the legal threshold to invoke the Act was met; and the burden is on them, not the other way around,” Zwibel said.
“We will vigorously test the government’s evidence and demand that the government is held to account for its actions.”
The public hearings are set to begin this Thursday in downtown Ottawa and will run to the end of November, according to the commission.
Over the six weeks, the commission will hear from more than 60 witnesses from a list that includes high-profile protesters, law enforcement, cabinet ministers and people impacted by the occupation.
For three weeks, Ottawa residents were subjected to nonstop honking of horns and blockaded city streets that forced businesses to shut their doors. Police said they received hundreds of reports of abusive behaviour during that period including harassment of those wearing masks, threats and intimidation, and fireworks being set off in residential areas in the middle of the night.
The occupation ended when law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions launched a massive operation to clear Ottawa streets, remove the trucks and infrastructure set up by the convoy, and arrest those who chose not to leave the area after the demonstration was declared an illegal protest.
The CCLA’s main concerns about the invocation of the Act are twofold, according to Zwibel. She said the first has to do with whether the situation in Ottawa and at the border crossings met the Act’s threshold to be considered a “threat to national security.”
According to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, threats to Canada’s national security fall under four categories:
- espionage or sabotage that is against Canada or is detrimental to the interests of Canada or activities directed toward or in support of such espionage or sabotage,
- foreign influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person,
- activities within or relating to Canada directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective within Canada or a foreign state, and
- activities directed toward undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of government in Canada
The definition does “not include lawful advocacy, protest or dissent,” the law stipulates — unless that action is “carried on in conjunction with any of the activities” listed above.
The CCLA’s other concern, Zwibel added, is whether the situation could have been resolved with the laws that already existed at the time of the Emergency Act’s invocation.
“The way the Act is framed, it talks about there not being laws that can address (the situation) and … does that mean that the laws don’t exist, or that they’re not being applied and enforced?”
The question of whether police could have resolved the situation is one that has been a key focus in the months since the demonstration.
During the convoy and in the time since, there have been heated criticisms by Ottawa residents of local police for both allowing the convoy to encamp in residential streets in the first place, as well as accusations that police did not enforce applicable laws.
Trudeau said the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was not one his government entered into “lightly” but that it was “necessary to restore order to … Ottawa and to parts of the country that were under real challenges.”
“I look forward to the work that the commission is going to do,” Trudeau said. “I know a lot of the … questions Canadians have will be answered by that commission.”
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