The Emergencies Act inquiry enters its final week today, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and key cabinet ministers set to answer questions about their decision to invoke the never-before-used law last winter to deal with massive protests against pandemic measures.
Today, the Public Order Emergency Commission inquiry is expected to hear from David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, and other CSIS officials. Trudeau is expected to appear before the inquiry on Friday.
Documents already entered into evidence show Vigneault didn’t believe the self-styled Freedom Convoy constituted a threat to national security according to the definition in CSIS’s enabling law.
As the week goes on, the commission is also expected to hear from:
- Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair.
- Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.
- Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
- Justice Minister David Lametti.
- Defence Minister Anita Anand.
- Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.
- Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.
- Prime Minister’s Office staffers Katie Telford, Brian Clow and John Brodhead.
Trudeau has defended the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, calling it a “measure of last resort.”
Here is what the commission has heard so far.
Testimony describes police dysfunction
The first two weeks of the commission focused on the police response to the protest. Multiple officers from the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) described chaos and confusion in Ottawa after protesters arrived the first weekend and parked big rigs and other vehicles on downtown streets.
Despite receiving several early warnings, Peter Sloly — OPS chief during the protests — told the commission that even in “hindsight,” he doesn’t think the intelligence he was getting before the protest convoy rolled into town suggested that protesters would dig in and remain.
The commission has heard how OPP sent the Ottawa police intelligence reports warning of “fringe ideologies” active within the protest movement and noting that organizers did not have an exit strategy to end the protest.
Still, the Ottawa police planned for the protesters to stay for only one weekend. Instead, they stayed for nearly a month.
“I think we were floundering a little bit in terms of our staffing, in terms of our ability to really take stock of what was going on and then move forward and come up with a plan to get out of it,” Patricia Ferguson, acting deputy chief of the OPS, told the commission inquiry. (Sloly resigned as Ottawa’s police chief in mid-February.)
Both OPP and RCMP officials have testified that they had no idea how OPS planned to end the demonstrations.
“We couldn’t read their minds as to what their plan was because there was no plan,” said Supt. Craig Abrams of the OPP.
Trudeau’s national security adviser Jody Thomas also testified about the actions of the country’s top Mountie.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told the commission inquiry that on the eve of the federal government invoking the Emergencies Act, she told Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s chief of staff that she felt police had not exhausted all legal tools to end the protest.
But Thomas said Lucki failed to pass that information on during a meeting with senior officials on Feb. 13.
“If there is useful or critical information, it needs to be provided, whether you are on the speaking list or not,” said Thomas.
Thomas also said Lucki never gave notice to the federal cabinet that police had firmed up an operational plan to end the blockades.
“I don’t recall cabinet being informed of that,” she said. “We had been told there was a plan multiple times.”
Disputes between Ontario and the federal government
The commission also has heard of friction between the Ontario and federal governments over how to address the protests in Ottawa and the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont.
The Emergencies Act is only supposed to be invoked when a national emergency “cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.”
The inquiry heard that during a Feb. 8 private call with then-Ottawa mayor Jim Watson, Trudeau accused Ontario Premier Doug Ford of hiding from his responsibilities during the Freedom Convoy protests.
WATCH | What did the Emergencies Act inquiry learn last week?
“Doug Ford has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons, as you highlighted,” Trudeau said according to a readout of the call, which is not an exact transcript of the conversation.
“Important we don’t let them get away from that.”
A few weeks later, the commission heard from a senior Ontario government bureaucrat who alleged the federal government was trying to force the province to take the lead on ending the blockades.
Mario Di Tommaso, Ontario’s deputy solicitor general, told the inquiry about a meeting during which Thomas asked whether the provincial government would take a more active role in the Ottawa protests if they were happening in Kingston, Ont.
“This question was all about, from my perception, the federal government wanting to wash its hands of this entire thing,” Di Tommaso said.
Ford has said he supported the federal government’s decision to invoke the Act.
What is a national security threat?
During her appearance before the inquiry, Thomas said the threshold for invoking the Emergencies Act should be changed.
To deploy the Emergencies Act, cabinet must have reasonable grounds to believe a public order emergency exists — which the Act defines as one that “arises from threats to the security of Canada that are so serious as to be a national emergency.”
The act defers to CSIS’s definition of threats — which includes serious violence against people or property, espionage, foreign interference or an intent to overthrow the government by violence.
Thomas and other officials told the commission that security threats have evolved in the 40 years since the Emergencies Act was introduced.
Documents tabled before the inquiry say Thomas told the Public Order Emergency Commission “it was the totality of the circumstances that led to what she considered to be the existence of a threat to the security of Canada, and therefore, [a] public order emergency.”
What happens next
The commission began hearing testimony in mid-October and wraps up on Friday. The inquiry will then move into a policy phase, during which it will host roundtables and hear from experts and policy makers on issues related to its mandate.
Commissioner Paul Rouleau’s final report must be tabled in Parliament by Feb. 20.