OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vigorously defended his decision to invoke the Emergencies Act at a public inquiry on Friday, insisting he met all legal thresholds to declare a public order emergency because the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests could have provoked serious violence if the federal government had not acted.
Speaking at the final day of witness testimony into that unprecedented decision, Trudeau argued this potential for “serious” political violence — rather than a pressing and specific threat — was significant enough to endanger Canada’s national security, and that it was up to the prime minister and federal cabinet alone to make that decision.
He also admitted he had a private moment of hesitation before he invoked the act on Feb. 14, but ultimately determined he could not wait and possibly see someone killed or injured.
Trudeau said there was “clear consensus” in support of the move from his cabinet ministers, as well as from his national security adviser and top officials at Canada’s national spy agency, the RCMP and the federal public service.
But the final call was his to make — and the decision weighed heavily, he said, asking how he would explain his hesitation “to the family of a police officer who was killed, or a grandmother who got run over trying to stop a truck, or a protester who was killed?”
“The responsibility of a prime minister is to make the tough calls and keep people safe,” Trudeau told the inquiry on Friday.
“I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice.”
Trudeau’s testimony over more than four hours Friday served as the grand finale of the inquiry led by Ontario Justice Paul Rouleau. Over 31 days of testimony spread over more than six weeks, 75 witnesses that included police, demonstrators, government officials and cabinet ministers have described their experiences of last winter’s “Freedom Convoy” — a protest movement against pandemic health measures that sparked a three-week occupation in downtown Ottawa and border blockades across the country.
The inquiry has also grappled with how the government turned to the Emergencies Act to deal with the crisis, granting police special powers to quash the protests, including abilities to declare protests illegal in restricted areas and compel banks to freeze participants’ bank accounts.
The decision has been controversial from that moment on, with opposition Conservatives, civil liberties groups and protesters themselves denouncing it as unnecessary and heavy-handed. On Friday, a lawyer for some protest leaders called on Trudeau to resign, while civil liberties groups raised questions about whether the convoy crisis was extensive and threatening enough to warrant the never-before-used Emergencies Act.
“The government also felt a great deal of pressure to do something to address the situation,” Cara Zwibel, a lawyer for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told the inquiry.
“The government gave law enforcement the biggest and most public nudge it could: it invoked the Emergencies Act and handed law enforcement across the country sweeping and unnecessary new tools and a clear political mandate to use them.”
Rouleau himself, in a closing statement, recognized the protests are a “very divisive issue,” and that he hoped the inquiry “will be of assistance to people to understand and move forward.”
Earlier Friday, Trudeau sat before a packed audience of convoy supporters, lawyers and others, and gave the government’s most direct explanation yet for why it felt the legal thresholds to invoke the Emergencies Act were met during last winter’s protest crisis.
One key threshold to trigger the act requires the government to conclude Canada faced a national security threat as defined in the CSIS Act, but Trudeau said the government determined this definition works differently — and can be interpreted more broadly — in the context of the Emergencies Act.
This point came under intense scrutiny in the final days of the inquiry, since CSIS officials testified earlier that the federal spy agency concluded the convoy protests never met the definition of a national security threat in the CSIS Act.
Trudeau argued this finding was irrelevant to the Feb. 14 invocation, since the context of the Emergencies Act allows the government to make its own assessment and look to a wider arrange of evidence and advice from a broad range of police, security agencies and civil servants — not just CSIS. The government can legally invoke the act “if, in their reasonable opinion — and I’m paraphrasing obviously — there are threats to the security of Canada, and it is a national emergency. That doesn’t mention ‘CSIS threshold’ anywhere,” Trudeau told the inquiry.
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He said this legal interpretation was at least in part based on a legal opinion from Liberal Justice Minister David Lametti, who delivered his assessment in a “verbal report” to cabinet on Feb. 13, the day before the government invoked the act.
Trudeau also outlined how the government viewed the nature of this national security threat, which was that the protests posed a risk of “serious” political violence against people or property.
Though police witnesses at the inquiry, such as the Ontario Provincial Police’s intelligence chief, have said the protests never posed a “specific” and “credible” threat of violence, Trudeau was clear the government concluded the potential for serious violence existed, and that this was enough to justify invoking the Emergencies Act.
There was a “weaponization of vehicles,” he said, citing incidents in which cars were rammed into police vehicles in Alberta and B.C., and the use of “children as human shields, deliberately.”
He said police officers trying to enforce laws were met with “active resistance,” and that the presence of people promoting violent extremism “had a danger of triggering … lone-wolf actors or people who could be radicalized” to engage in violence.
“The fact that there was not yet any serious violence that had been noted was obviously a good thing, but we could not say there was no potential for serious violence to happen over the coming days,” Trudeau said.
While the government did not start formally exploring whether to invoke the Emergencies Act until Feb. 10, when it was placed on the agenda of a special meeting of ministers and officials, the possibility the never-before-used law would be needed was on Trudeau’s mind since the first days of the convoy occupation in Ottawa, which began in late January, the prime minister said.
In a scathing description of police mishandling of the crisis, Trudeau criticized the Ottawa police for failing to manage the occupation, and for having no “real plan” to end the protests more than two weeks into the crisis. He said the Ontario government also failed to act quickly enough to address the Ottawa blockade. And he said anyone who had reservations about triggering the act should have spoken up at crucial meetings on Feb. 13.
The comment underscored how RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told the inquiry she didn’t speak up at the time, but communicated by email to government officials that Mounties and the OPP approved a new plan to deal with the Ottawa occupation, and that law enforcement hadn’t yet exhausted legal tools to deal with the crisis.
“My expectation is, always, if you have significant disagreements, this is the time to speak up. There was no voice saying: ‘hold it, we don’t think you should do this,’” Trudeau said.
Trudeau also said Friday he was told at the time that police still had no “real plan” to actually end the occupation, and that the fact that law enforcement felt they couldn’t enforce some laws out of concerns for their safety was another reason the government felt the crisis involved a dangerous and illegal protest movement.
In contrast to some of his cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who said the economic danger Canada faced because of border blockades justified use of the Emergencies Act, Trudeau said economic harm was only part of the consideration in this situation.
He also rejected the suggestion put to him Friday by an inquiry lawyer that the invocation of the act could set a precedent that would allow future governments to create special police powers too easily in the future.
“I have greater faith in Canadians and in our institutions than the fact that we might sort of shrug as our fundamental rights are casually brushed aside in the name of political expediency or a national emergency that actually wouldn’t be one,” Trudeau said.
Rouleau is mandated to submit a written report to the government that will be tabled in Parliament by Feb. 20.
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