Since it began on Oct. 13, the public inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act has delivered some surprises and revelations as witnesses take the stand and internal government documents get released.
Among the revelations are behind-the-scenes discussions between the different levels of government and intelligence on preparations for the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa, as well as assessments by security agencies and contradictions with what government officials had said.
As of Oct. 19, the inquiry has heard testimony from representatives of some Ottawa residents and businesses expressing concerns over the convoy protest, which began Jan. 29, as well as from City of Ottawa officials, councillors, and the mayor, and an Ontario Provincial Police officer. Testimony from convoy protesters, police forces, and representatives of different levels of government, including the prime minister and senior cabinet members, will take place in the coming days.
Foreign Influence Allegations
A Feb. 6 briefing tabled at the Public Order Emergency Commission on Oct. 18 shows that the director of Canada’s spy agency had said there was no foreign involvement in the Freedom Convoy protest, in contrast with what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other cabinet ministers said around that time and later.
“There [are] no foreign actors identified at this point supporting or financing this convoy,” Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director David Vigneault said in his briefing given during a teleconference with senior officials at different levels of government.
In the House of Commons on Feb. 17, Trudeau alleged that the protest was foreign-funded.
“These illegal blockades are being heavily supported by individuals in the United States and from elsewhere around the world. We see that roughly half of the funding that is flowing to the barricaders here is coming from the United States,” he said.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino made similar comments.
“We all need to be seized with the landscape as it exists around foreign interference, and any funds that may be used to undermine public safety,” Mendicino said in the House on Feb. 8.
The convoy protest was initiated by truck drivers opposed to the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for cross-border travel. As large convoys of trucks travelled across the country to converge in Ottawa on Jan. 29, other protesters opposed to different pandemic mandates and restrictions joined the movement.
And as protesters set up camp and held rallies in Ottawa, other convoy protests and blockades sprang up in different parts of the country and at border crossings, including at the Ambassador Bridge crossing in Windsor, Ont., which accounts for the transportation of millions of dollars in goods between Canada and the United States daily.
Throughout the demonstration in Ottawa, Trudeau refused to meet with the protesters or send representatives to talk to them.
He invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 and, after the protests were cleared from Ottawa, revoked it on Feb. 23.
‘Lack of Violent Crime Was Shocking’
A surprising turn of events came on the opening day of the inquiry, when a lawyer representing the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) said the police force didn’t think provincial or federal emergency measures were needed to clear the protests. This statement came despite the Ontario government’s approval of the feds’ use of the Emergencies Act.
Supt. Pat Morris, head of OPP’s Provincial Operations Intelligence Bureau, who took the stand on Oct. 19, explained how the provincial police force was involved in intelligence gathering on the convoy before and after its arrival in Ottawa.
“The Ontario Provincial Police, with the permission of the Ottawa Police Service, was engaged on-ground in a covert capacity to collect information about all the things that we’d be interested in, in terms of mood, tenor, plans, etc.,” he said.
Morris said there was no intelligence to indicate that “these individuals would be armed,” adding, “There has been a lot of hyperbole about that.”
He said the force found no credible “intelligence of threats” and noted that police evaluated the accuracy of their earlier intelligence to this effect by looking at the arrests and charges during the protests.
“The lack of violent crime was shocking. … Even the arrests and charges, considering the whole thing in totality—I think there were 10 charges for violent crimes, six of which were against police officers,” he said.
Brendan Miller, one of the lawyers for Freedom Corp., ran through legal definitions of “threats to the security of Canada” that would justify the invocation of the act, and asked Morris if he saw any relevant evidence that would meet those definitions.
Morris replied that he saw no evidence of espionage or sabotage, nor any evidence of foreign influence activities.
“I saw media accounts [of foreign influence allegations], yes. I saw no information collected or intelligence produced in that regard … to support that,” he said.
He also said that he saw “online rhetoric” and “assertions” of threat of use of serious violence but that he is not aware of any “intelligence that was produced that would support concern in that regard.”
Morris added that the OPP intelligence branch collected information on “asserted attempts” at vandalism of property, such as arson, but “did we have any credible intelligence that that would occur? No,” he said.
Conflict Between Governments
Documents tabled at the inquiry show infighting and accusations behind the scenes between the different levels of government while working to deal with the protest.
A transcript of a Feb. 8 call between Trudeau and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson shows that Trudeau said Ontario Premier Doug Ford was evading his responsibilities in clearing the protests for political reasons.
“Doug ford (sic) has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons as you highlighted, and important that we don’t let them get away from that, and we intend to support you on that,” Trudeau told Watson, according to the transcript.
“It’d be nice if we have something firmed up with the federal government to shame them. Ford didn’t even make an effort to come and see what’s going on,” Watson said in reply. He said at the commission on Oct. 18 that the city needed more police, and after applying pressure on the province, they eventually got more officers.
A Feb. 6 call between different representatives of the three levels of government also shows some of the tension behind the scenes at that time.
“Would the Province be looking to the Federal Government if this protest was happening outside the City of Ottawa (e.g., happening in other places like Kingston)?” the summary of the call quotes Trudeau’s national security adviser Jody Thomas as saying.
Mario Di Tommaso, deputy solicitor general of Ontario, said in response: “This is a protest and encampment movement against the federal mandate of trucks. They came to Ottawa from across the country for that purpose.”
The documents were made public a day after Ford reiterated his support for the invocation of the Emergencies Act, saying he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Trudeau on the move.
Ontario was among the minority of provinces that supported the measure. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were all opposed to the invocation of the act or said it wasn’t necessary.
Trudeau told reporters on Oct. 19 that there were times during the convoy protest that the different levels of government weren’t working together as well as they could, but he said they eventually came together to end the demonstration.
The commission also heard that city officials and Ottawa police were warned before the trucks arrived in the nation’s capital in late January that the protesters intended to stay for a prolonged period of time.
In late January, the president of the Ottawa-Gatineau Hotel Association had told the mayor’s office that someone from the “Canada United Truckers Convoy” had asked to book hotel rooms for at least 30 days.
OPP’s Morris also said in his testimony that by Jan. 20, the provincial police force believed that the convoy protests would be “a long-term event,” and they shared that information with other police forces. But he says then-Ottawa Police Service (OPS) chief Peter Sloly “was not happy” with the OPP’s intelligence briefings.
Sloly will be testifying at the commission in the coming days.
David Migicovsky, a lawyer representing the OPS, said on the opening day of the inquiry that the OPS is usually prepared to deal with various types of protests but not one of the scope of the convoy protest.
“What you will hear is that this protest was unique in Canadian history. The police had little time to prepare,” he said.
One of the issues discussed at length in the first days of the inquiry was an agreement between convoy protesters and Mayor Watson to remove trucks from residential areas.
While the main aim of the inquiry is to see if the high threshold of invoking the Emergencies Act was met, Keith Wilson, a lawyer representing the Freedom Convoy organizers who brokered the deal with the city, says it’s important to consider what the agreement to move the trucks would have accomplished had it been carried through.
“On Saturday [Feb. 12] we had the deal, on Sunday we were in the logistics meeting, on the Monday we were moving trucks. The prime minister should have just said, all right, let’s just see how this goes [before declaring a public emergency],” Wilson told The Epoch Times, noting that other protests such as the Ambassador Bridge border-crossing blockade had been cleared without the use of the Emergencies Act.
Wilson said Freedom Convoy organizers were planning to move all vehicles out of residential areas onto Wellington Street facing the Parliament Buildings by Feb. 16 per their agreement with the city.
Wilsons’ clients haven’t yet testified at the inquiry.
City officials who have testified, including Watson, said they saw this agreement as a partial relief, not a full remedy—which would have been the total removal of the encampment—but acknowledged that those on the protest side lived up to the agreement, clearing 40 big rigs and other vehicles and clearing some of the residential streets.
But it came to light during the proceedings that what halted the convoy organizers from completing their plan was the Parliamentary Protective Service, which provides security within the Parliamentary Precinct.
“The [security service] expressed concern with respect to Wellington being turned into a parking lot of 200-plus trucks,” Ottawa city manager Steve Kanellakos said in a summary of an interview presented to the commission.
During his testimony, Watson said he didn’t ask the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act but welcomed the measure after it was enacted. He said on Oct. 18 that what he found most useful in the act was the ability to compel towing companies to clear protest vehicles.
“It’s fine for someone out West or down East to say it was overkill. No, we needed that act,” Watson said.
Battle lines were drawn on the opening day of the inquiry on Oct. 13 as different entities made their introductory remarks.
Robert MacKinnon, general counsel with the Justice Department who is representing the federal government at the commission, said in his remarks that the convoy protests presented an “unprecedented critical situation” to the country and that it will come to light that the invocation of the act was necessary.
“The evidence will show that the invocation of the Emergencies Act was a reasonable and necessary decision, given the escalating volatile and urgent circumstances across the country,” he said.
Lawyers for the governments of Saskatchewan and Alberta stated their sharp opposition to the invocation of the act and said they were only made aware of the feds’ intention to invoke the act hours before it proceeded on Feb. 14.
Mandy England, a lawyer representing the government of Alberta, said the province wanted to take part in the inquiry to show that Alberta was able to clear out the blockade at the Coutts border without the use of the act, and to hold the federal government accountable for invoking the measure.
Following testimony from city officials, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), which is also taking part in the commission, said on Oct. 18 that the officials’ testimony hasn’t shown why ordinary policing powers weren’t enough to deal with the convoy protest, or why a national emergency was needed.
“We are focused on the narrow question of whether the federal government’s actions were lawful or constitutional. Based on the most recent testimony, our assessment that the government acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally has not changed,” Cara Zwibel, director of fundamental freedoms for the CCLA, said in a statement.
The Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa is scheduled to hear daily testimonies until Nov. 25, after which it will enter a second phase with a focus on policy, before Commissioner Paul Rouleau submits his report to Parliament by Feb. 20, 2023.
Noé Chartier and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.