Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today dismissed claims that police in Ottawa were on the verge of executing a plan to clear the anti-COVID-19 occupation restrictions last winter, arguing that the plan “wasn’t a plan at all.”
After six weeks of dramatic witness testimony, Trudeau is making his own highly anticipated appearance before the Public Order Emergency Commission to defend his government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 for the first time in the law’s 34-year history.
The commission has heard previously that after initial confusion and dysfunction, the Ottawa Police Service, the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP had come together to craft an operational plan around Feb. 13.
“We kept hearing there was a plan,” Trudeau testified Friday before a packed room.
“I would recommend people take a look at that actual plan, which wasn’t a plan at all”
Trudeau said the document he heard about was largely about using liaison officers to shrink the footprint of the protest, with annexes on enforcement “to be determined later.’
“It was not even in the most generous characterizations a plan for how they were going to end the occupation,” Trudeau said.
WATCH | Trudeau says Ottawa police had no plan to end convoy protest
The question of whether police could have handled the crowds without the Emergencies Act has been raised multiple times at the inquiry, as Commissioner Paul Rouleau considers whether its invocation was truly a measure of last resort.
Trudeau said he is “serene and confident” in the choice he made to invoke the act.
The night before the law was invoked, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s chief of staff that she felt police had not yet exhausted “all available tools,” according to an email seen by the inquiry. In that email, she also listed a number of measures that could be helpful if the government moved forward.
Documents submitted into evidence on Thursday also indicate that the RCMP wanted to keep the Emergencies Act in place for weeks after the protests were cleared.
Trudeau says CSIS isn’t the decision-maker
With critics arguing that the government did not meet the requirements of the legislation, the inquiry has been considering the legal definition of a public order emergency.
The Emergencies Act defines a national emergency as one that “arises from threats to the security of Canada that are so serious as to be a national emergency.”
The act points back to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act definition of such threats, which include harm caused for the purpose of achieving a “political, religious or ideological objective,” espionage, foreign interference or the intent to overthrow the government by violence. It doesn’t mention economic security.
The head of the spy agency has testified he doesn’t believe the protest met the definition of a national security threat under the CSIS act, but was told the Emergencies Act offered a broader definition of such threats.
During her examination, commission lawyer Shantona Chaudhury suggested to Trudeau that the protests did “not constitute a threat to the security of Canada as defined in the CSIS Act.”
“As defined for the CSIS Act,” Trudeau responded.
“Those words in the CSIS Act are used for the purpose of CSIS determining that they have authority to act against an individual a group or a specific plot … for example.”
Trudeau said that the cabinet — not CSIS — decides whether to invoke the Emergencies Act.
“It’s not the words that are different. The words are exactly the same in both cases. The question is, who’s doing the interpretation? What inputs come in, and what is the purpose of it? And the purpose of it for this project was to be able to give us in special temporary measures as defined in the Public Order emergency act. That would put an end to this national emergency
The government has claimed solicitor-client privilege to shield the legal advice it received on interpreting the Emergencies Act.
CSIS didn’t have the tools, mindset to deal with convoy: Trudeau
In an interview with commission counsel in September, Trudeau said CSIS faced challenges during the convoy protests. A summary of that interview was made public Friday.
“He noted that CSIS does not necessarily have the right tools, mandate or even mindset to respond to the threat Canada faced at that moment,” said the summary.
“He noted that CSIS has a very specific mandate, and that when they are determining whether there is a threat to the security of Canada, they are doing so for the purpose of obtaining a warrant, wire tap, or to authorize an investigation of a specific target.”
CSIS’s key mandate is to investigate activities suspected of constituting threats to the security of the country and to report to the government of Canada.
“CSIS has been challenged in recent years by the threat of domestic terrorism, which it was not designed to address. He observed that CSIS is limited in its ability to conduct operations on Canadian soil or against Canadians,” said Trudeau’s interview summary.
Government felt passing legislation would be too slow
In his September interview, Trudeau said the Incident Response Group, a special committee made up of cabinet ministers and security officials, mused about bringing in legislation to clear the crowds, but felt passing a bill through Parliament would take too long.
“For example, the IRG looked at the possibility of special legislation to compel tow truck drivers to fulfill their government contracts. Ultimately, it was determined that the legislative process (up to and including royal assent) would have taken weeks,” said the summary of Trudeau’s interview.
“Therefore, the IRG determined that if the police needed new legal authorities, the response would require the Emergencies Act’s invocation.”
Trudeau told the commission the IRG started seriously considering the Emergencies Act after the third weekend of protests in Ottawa.
“The events of the first weekend caught police by surprise. By the second weekend, it was apparent that the police were unable to end it. It was still not taken care of after the third weekend, with current tools and resources,” said Trudeau’s interview summary.
“That’s when the prime minister and cabinet felt it was the right moment.”
Trudeau’s testimony Friday marks the end of the public hearing phase of the commission’s work.
The inquiry has heard testimony from dozens of witnesses, including Ottawa residents, local officials, police, protesters and senior federal ministers.
The inquiry has heard conflicting views from police and intelligence agency leaders about whether the Emergencies Act powers were needed.
Government worried about economic impacts
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland defended the government’s decision Thursday, arguing that the protests sparked political concerns south of the border.
At various points in early 2022, protesters blockaded border crossings in Windsor, Ont., the small town of Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man., and the Pacific Highway in Surrey, BC
Earlier this month, the inquiry heard that Transport Canada estimates as much as $3.9 billion in trade activity was halted because of border blockades related to the convoy protests.
As a result, Freeland said, she heard complaints from the highest levels of the White House. She called it a “dangerous moment for Canada.”
Still, a number of groups — including the convoy protest organizers and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) — have argued that invoking the act amounted to government overreach.
“With just one day of testimony left, the government is running out of time to prove it met the high burden of invoking the Emergencies Act,” the CCLA said in a statement on Thursday.
Friday’s hearings will finish with lawyers making their final arguments to Commissioner Rouleau.
The commission is winding down its public hearings but will still hear opinions from academics and experts next week. Rouleau’s final report is due to be tabled in Parliament in February.